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The unravelling of India's Persian puzzle

By Siddharth Varadarajan (
This article was first published by The Hindu

By voting against Iran in the IAEA, India has put its alliance with the United States above any concern of national interest, energy security or international law.

FOR ALL its pretensions to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, India on Saturday flunked its first real test as a rising world power. Where no less than 11 countries smaller and less powerful than us - Venezuela, Algeria, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Vietnam, and Yemen - had the courage and good sense to join Russia and China in refusing to endorse the U.S.-backed agenda of confrontation with Iran, India threw in its lot with Washington and the European troika.

Scared by a well-choreographed bout of shadow boxing at the start of Congressional hearings on the July 18 Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, the Manmohan Singh Government convinced itself that it had to side with Washington's unreasonable pressure on Iran. In doing so, the Government has betrayed its own lack of strategic confidence - this at a time when the fine print of the nuclear deal is about to be negotiated and the slightest sign of diplomatic weakness will be used by Washington to push the envelope on issues like the scope of international safeguards and inspections India must accept in order to see the July 18 agreement through.

Moreover, the Government has chosen to go along with a confrontationist move against Iran which undercuts a key legal argument India has been making for 50 years to justify its own nuclear programme - that countries can only be held to account for international agreements they sign.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) gives Iran the right to pursue the nuclear fuel cycle subject to safeguards. It gives Iran the right to build a heavy water reactor. The Additional Protocol Iran has signed specifies the kind of intrusive inspections it must allow. But the International Atomic Energy Agency resolution India voted for makes demands that go far, far beyond Iran's legal obligations. This is a dangerous precedent for India to agree to since this means the safeguards agreement and additional protocol it has committed to sign with the IAEA also one day need not be the final word on its legal obligations.

The vote India cast in the IAEA Board of Governors (BoG) was in favour of a resolution finding Iran in "non-compliance" with its safeguards obligations under the NPT and expressing "the absence of confidence that Iran's nuclear programme is entirely for peaceful purposes." The finding is under two Articles, XII and III, of the IAEA Statute, both of which mandate referral of the matter to the Security Council. Unlike the referral under Article XII.C, which is more of a procedural nature, the referral under III.B.4 invokes the Security Council's responsibilities for maintaining international peace and security and holds out a thinly veiled threat of sanctions and other punitive measures.

In what is supposed to be a major "compromise," Britain, France, and Germany (the E-3) dropped earlier language stipulating that the referral to the Security Council should be immediate. The timing of this referral has been left to a future BoG meeting, presumably the one that will be convened in November. The Indian Government, in justifying its decision to back the resolution, has cited this two-step approach as a big concession. Indian officials claim this delay provides the time and space needed for dialogue and diplomacy to work, a claim of extraordinary naivety and even double-speak. First, Saturday's resolution is more likely to close the door on dialogue than re-open it since it demands Iran surrender even more of its rights under the NPT than ever before. Secondly, the U.S. itself did not necessarily want an immediate referral because there is little practical significance to dragging Iran before the UNSC where China and Russia would exercise their veto. What it really wanted was for the international community to recognise Iran's civilian nuclear energy programme as a threat to international peace and security requiring potentially endless "special verification" inspections, which go far beyond that required under the normal safeguards agreement and Additional Protocol. Armed with this broad endorsement, Washington can now choose the time and place for the political - and even military - escalation that is surely in the offing.

Given the composition of the BoG, securing a majority had never been an issue for the U.S. and its allies. But in the absence of consensus, which was an impossibility anyway, engineering India's defection from the ranks of the developing countries was crucial. The U.S. needed to undercut the charge that the West was ganging up on the Third World in denying Iran the right to nuclear fuel cycle-related facilities. Winning over Ecuador, Peru, Ghana, and Singapore was not good enough since these are not countries known for the independence of their foreign policy. The U.S. needed India to provide a cover of credibility for the unreasonable indictment against Iran and the Manmohan Singh Government happily went along. That is why U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns has hailed India's vote as "a blow to Iran's attempt to turn this into a developed world versus developing world debate."

Of all the demands the IAEA resolution makes, three are highly problematic and ultra vires. First, it says Iran must implement "transparency measures ... which extend beyond the formal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol." Calling Iran a "special verification case," the BoG said this requires an expansion in the "limited" legal authority of the IAEA to conduct inspections. Specifically, this must include "access to individuals, documentation relating to procurement, dual use equipment, certain military owned workshops and research and development locations." In this way, the road has been cleared for an Inspection Raj of the UNSCOM/UNMOVIC type, which, even after physically checking every possible location in Iraq several times over, never had the ability to say Baghdad possessed no weapons of mass destruction. The resolution's demand for access to individuals is also a bit rich, considering that the source of the technology Iran is suspected of possessing - A.Q. Khan - is sitting pretty in Pakistan, beyond the reach of IAEA inspectors.

Secondly, Iran has been told to resume the suspension of enrichment-related and reprocessing activity. Unlike all previous resolutions of the BoG which called on Iran to suspend its enrichment, this resolution makes no explicit mention of the voluntary, non-legally binding nature of Iran's commitment to suspend those activities. By this subtle act of elision, a voluntary, non-legally binding undertaking is being elevated to the status of a legally binding commitment. Thirdly, the resolution says Iran must "reconsider the construction of a research reactor moderated by heavy water." This is a new and illegal demand that did not figure in the last resolution passed by the BoG on August 11, 2005, and represents a further shift of the goalpost.

The irony of the Indian capitulation on Iran is that its display of political weakness comes at a time when the U.S. has finally become aware of India's strategic weight and significance and is attempting desperately to harness these for its own ends.

When President George W. Bush offered Dr. Manmohan Singh civilian nuclear cooperation, he did so in full knowledge that India has tended to side with the rest of the developing world on the question of Iran. Either his decision to support India's nuclear industry was taken independently of the Iran equation or it was conditional on New Delhi ditching Tehran both as a source of energy security and as a conduit for the integration of India and Central Asia. If the former is the case, the Manmohan Singh Government had nothing to fear from sticking to its earlier stand of "consensus" in the IAEA BoG. And if it was the latter, then surely this amounts to a hidden - and unacceptable - cost India is now being forced to pay in order to see the nuclear deal through.

Any deal or partnership that hangs on such a slender thread, which attempts forcibly to rewrite India's strategic equations and undermines the country's strategic autonomy cannot possibly be in the national interest. Nuclear power of the kind that might flow from this deal will never be a substitute for hydrocarbons in the medium-term. Even in the long-term, India will depend on gas imports from Iran and Central Asia, preferably via pipeline.

If not today, then five years from now, the logic of India's economic growth will compel a rewriting of the rules of international nuclear commerce for the country - this time not as a concession or favour from the U.S. but as the product of objective market forces. By blackmailing India into voting against Iran, the U.S. hopes to undermine Indo-Iranian economic relations to such an extent that New Delhi becomes a stakeholder in the drive for "regime change" there. How much the world has changed in a year. A country that once condemned the invasion of Iraq and refused to send its soldiers there is today in danger of becoming an accessory to the strangulation and targeting of Iran.

Copyright 2000 - 2005 The Hindu

... Payvand News - 9/28/05 ... --

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