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Yes, India is a friend of Iran, so what?

By Ramananda Sengupta
November 13, 2003 15:22 IST
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That old debate has come back to haunt the world again.

Do the world's official nuclear powers have the right to prevent others from building nuclear weapons?

Morally, no one will deny that nuclear weapons are the scourge of mankind. Apart from accidents, the thought of such weapons falling into terrorist hands remain the unending nightmare of national security agencies worldwide.

Realistically, every nation -- well, almost every nation -- believes that such weapons will not only ensure their own security, but also allow them to take their rightful place on the world stage.

This feeling was further reinforced after India and Pakistan tried to gatecrash the nuclear weapons club in May 1998, and got off reasonably lightly as far as international reactions went.

Of course, whether or not it actually boosted the security of the two nations or just levelled the uneven conventional military balance in the subcontinent is still being debated.

But neither Pakistan nor India were signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Iran is.

The other non-signatories are Israel and Cuba. On April 10, North Korea became the first nation to pull out from the treaty, having given the necessary three month notice in January. North Korea is also the only nation that claims to possess nuclear weapons without actually ever having tested.

Essentially, the NPT, which came into force in 1970, is aimed at preventing the nuclear powers from proliferation, while the non-nuclear powers pledged to refrain from developing weapons.

Many people who otherwise objected to the war on Iraq, another signatory, believed that if Baghdad did violate the NPT, it ought to be severely punished so that other signatories didn't get ideas.

The US, which has been loudly asserting that Iran does have a weapons programme, is obviously disappointed that a report prepared by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Commission] falls just short of saying this.

According to the report, leaked to the press before being submitted to the 35-member board of the UN's nuclear watchdog, while Iran has been engaged in clandestine research for nearly 20 years, there was no evidence that it was linked to a weapons programme.

"Iran's policy of concealment continued until last month, with cooperation being limited and reactive and information being slow in coming, changing and contradictory. (But) Following the adoption of the board's resolution the government of Iran informed that Iran had now adopted a policy of full disclosure... Since that time Iran has shown active cooperation and openness," Reuters quoted a senior official reading from the report.

Way back in 1995, in a paper titled US nuclear policy toward Iran, non-proliferation analyst Mark D Skootsky had this rather interesting nugget about India.

"Iran's nuclear negotiations with India in 1991 were of great concern to the United States. Iran and India were negotiating the sale of a 10-megawatt research reactor for instalment at the Iranian facility Moallem Kalayeh, and the possible sale of a 220-megawatt nuclear power reactor. India initially suggested the sale of a five-megawatt research reactor, but Iran insisted on a ten-megawatt reactor, which, according to anonymous specialists, could produce enough plutonium or weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon within one year if operated 24 hours a day. Despite the fact that the research reactor, as well as the 220- megawatt reactor, would have been covered by IAEA safeguards, the United States placed pressure on India not to export the research reactor for fear that Iran would use it to produce weapons-grade fissile materials. Although no reports indicated what form of pressure the United States applied to India, India initially seemed to comply with U.S. demands. However, reports indicate that by March 1992, the deal may have continued as planned despite US pressure."

Now, recent reports that Dr YSR Prasad, a former chairman and managing director of the Nuclear Corporation of India, took up an assignment in Iran in 2000 (after India's 1998 tests) have been pounced upon by newspapers -- mainly Pakistani -- which claim that this is positive proof that India is helping Iran develop nuclear weapons.

Yes, India is a friend of Iran. Yes, India has been helping Iran develop nuclear technology. So too has Russia, France, Germany. China, Kazakshtan, the Ukraine. North Korea. And Pakistan.

(An American non-proliferation website says:

February 1986: Abdul Qadir Khan, Pakistan's leading nuclear scientist, makes a secret visit to Bushehr. Pakistan and Iran sign a secret nuclear cooperation agreement later in the year.

Kenneth R Timmerman, "Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Cases of Iran, Syria and Libya," a Simon Wiesenthal Center Special Report, August 1992, p. 41-42.)

Yes, India does have strategic interests which coincide with Iran's. Talks of deepening this strategic cooperation after Iran's President Mohammad Khatami visit to New Delhi in January sent alarm bells ringing in Islamabad, already upset over the steadfast Indian refusal to accept a gas pipeline from Iran across Pakistani soil.

Instead, the two nations signed energy, trade and defence deals estimated to be worth more than $25 billion. As part of the agreements, India is expected to help upgrade Iran's fleet of Russian submarines (In March, the two nations conducted their first joint naval exercises) and MiG aircraft. Some reports say India is also expected to provide Iran with military training and technology.

Yes, India has been helping Iran's nuclear programme.

But weapons? Anyone who believes that obviously also believes that the moon is made of green cheese. What possible motive could India have? Money? Oil? Political goodwill? Give me a break.

If anything, Pakistan's oil for nukes deal with Saudi Arabia ought to worry the world far more. The motives there are obvious.

To return to the original question: Can nations unwilling to relinquish their own weapons stop others determined to acquire them? One need look no further than our own backyard to answer that question.

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Ramananda Sengupta