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Iran’s Nuclear Enrichment Programme: Is it the only Threat?

Col Rajeev Agarwal is Assistant Director (Admin). Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 09, 2012

    As President Obama celebrates his re-election, Iran and West Asia await the further unfurling of US policy towards the region. Major international issues that were kept on the back burner of US foreign policy pending the elections are now likely to resurface. Among them, the most prominent are the Syrian crisis and the Iran nuclear issue. These, coupled with the Arab revolutions and the long outstanding Israel-Palestine issue, have occupied much of the space in US foreign policy in the last few years.

    Although the Arab revolutions took centre stage over the past one year, the battle over the Iranian nuclear issue was always on the horizon. This battle pitches Iran against the powerful Western Bloc led by the United States. While the United States accuses Iran of pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons programme that not only undermines the security of the region but also threatens its closet ally Israel, Iran has been at pains to explain that it has no nuclear weapons ambitions. Iran continues to protest that its nuclear programme is only for peaceful purposes and that it has a sovereign right towards enriching uranium. With none of the sides relenting, West Asia has been brought to the cusp of war more than once in recent times. The battle lines continue to be drawn with each side perhaps waiting for the other to call its bluff. Having said that, is the issue restricted only to the challenge of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons? Is the battle all that simple or is there something more to it?

    West Asia has always been a region of complex regional and global dynamics. Of all the countries in the region, Iran is the only country that has a direct interface with Central Asia, West Asia and South Asia. Iran's centrality, its commanding position in the Persian Gulf, domination of the Strait of Hormuz, a geographically well-suited position for oil and gas pipelines emanating from the Central Asian Republics and the energy rich Caspian Sea region, all make it a fulcrum of West Asia. This position has also given Iran a chance to carve out a bigger sphere of influence in West Asia.

    The withdrawal of US forces from Iraq enlarged Iran’s sphere of influence in West Asia and had two immediate consequences. First, it created a vacuum that the Iraqis themselves could not fill, thus enabling Iran to step in. Second, Iraq falling within the Iranian sphere of influence has brought Iran to the borders of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria and has also effectively enlarged Iran's border with Turkey, virtually completing the Shiite crescent.

    On the nuclear issue, the imposition of strong economic sanctions and the threat of military action have forced Iran to explore new strategic configurations with Russia, China and even Turkey that could provide more leverage in its relationships and offset the unipolar dominance of the United States in the region.

    The geopolitical realm of the region would undergo a drastic change if Iran develops nuclear weapons. If that happens, Saudi Arabia would soon follow suit. An Iranian nuclear weapon would serve as the Shi’a axis’s ultimate shield against any attempts to curtail its progress. Also, this could turn the perennial fear of Israel about Iran’s nuclear weapons programme into reality. The Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia fear that nuclear weapons would strengthen Iran’s ability subject them to pressure and blackmail. Also, Hezbollah, Hamas and other proxies of Iran will gain much more courage to act.

    Talks with P5+1, coupled with a hardened Iranian stand, have virtually led to the de facto acceptance and legitimisation of Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme. Frequent rhetoric by Iranian leaders that Iran has become a ‘Nuclear State’, indicates that presently Iran aims at a stage of ‘nuclear latency’ – the world should know that Iran has the capability to deploy a nuclear weapon in a short time if it so desires. Even in the absence of nuclear weapons, the state of nuclear latency would provide Iran an adequately ambiguous and advantageous position in its regional and global dealings.

    So far neither the IAEA nor the US intelligence community has been able to prove that Iran is developing, manufacturing or in the process of testing a nuclear device. There is no seismic or radiation-monitoring data to indicate that nuclear tests have taken place in Iran. Although the IAEA assessment indicates that Iran is a few years away from weaponisation, a covert enrichment facility or the clandestine transfer of critical components or weapons grade fissile material from rogue states could further shorten this period.

    It thus appears that Iran is going to continue with its nuclear enrichment programme and is unlikely to compromise on this score. Despite UN and Western sanctions crippling the economy, Iran is unlikely to sacrifice its enrichment programme which has become tied to Iranian nationalism. President Ahmadinejad has driven his political campaign around enrichment it and the country as a whole has rallied around it. The present situation of nuclear ambiguity suits the regime fine as it doesn’t need nuclear weapons in the immediate future. The knowledge that these can be developed as and when required would be a comforting thought for the Iranian leadership.

    Is it nuclear weapons that Iran desperately seeks to develop or is there something else? When seen from an Iranian perspective, more than nuclear weapons, it is the survival of the Islamic Regime that dominates the security paradigm and the strategic aims of the country. The threats that have the potential to destabilise Iran are:

    • Most of Iran's neighbours, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan, are unstable, which has an impact on Iran.
    • US withdrawal from Iraq has led to a geo-political restructuring of the region from which Iran has emerged stronger. As a result, there is more opposition to Iran's desire to play a greater role in the region.
    • Oil export through the Persian Gulf is the economic lifeline for Iran. Any disruption could, therefore, be disastrous for the country and the Islamic Regime.
    • Internal opposition, even though ruthlessly suppressed, continues to simmer. Other opposition elements continue to be active. Also, ethnic insurgencies in the neighbouring countries may impinge upon the internal security of Iran.
    • NATO not only has a presence in Turkey but could also acquire an extended presence in Afghanistan. The United States is not leaving Afghanistan anytime soon. In the Gulf too, the United States has a strong military presence. Strategically, therefore, Iran feels hemmed in from all sides.

    Perhaps, Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is just one part and, may be, the public part of this strange standoff between the US-led Western block and Iran. At the core of this standoff is, however, the challenge to the balance of power in West Asia from Iran’s growing sphere of influence, which now stretches through Iraq towards the Mediterranean. The United States is clearly uncomfortable with Iran meddling in regional issues and developments, especially in Bahrain and Syria. The nuclear standoff could therefore be a pretext to force Iran on the back foot.

    Of late, given the international standoff on the Iranian nuclear issue, India has not been able to engage Iran on issues of mutual interests. US policy towards Iran is giving India a diplomatic headache. More important than anything else, India has to prioritise its energy security, particularly as it already imports 70 per cent of its oil and gas which could increase to 90 per cent in the years ahead. While India has diversified its sources of oil supply, Iran still remains its third largest supplier after Saudi Arabia and Iraq; Iran currently supplies about 12 per cent of India’s annual requirements. With Iran located virtually next door, it makes no sense for India to compromise its long-term interests by cutting off or reducing its Iranian oil purchases.

    India has to worry additionally about competition from China, which also depends on massive oil imports. China already has a big head start over India in securing its oil and gas needs from the Gulf region and Central Asia. It has out-competed India in most oil-producing countries, though in some cases Indian companies have entered into collaborative arrangements with Chinese companies in order to avoid under-cutting each other. The Gulf region still remains the major source for meeting India’s and China’s future energy needs.

    US-Iran tensions are hurting India in other areas as well. As India is unable to get access to Afghanistan through Pakistan, Iran provides a logical alternative. India, Iran and Afghanistan have a shared interest in reducing Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan. India took the decision to build the Zaranj-Delaram section of the road in Afghanistan directly linking the Chabahar port in Iran. India and Iran have discussed this project several times but Iran has been slow in upgrading the port facilities and building the necessary rail links.

    Iran thus presents an interesting dilemma, not only in the region but the whole world. Here is a nation which was a close ally of the United States until the Islamic Revolution of 1979 but thereafter became an adversary. Today, Iran is trying to break free from the shackles imposed upon. Some would suggest the shackles are justified given the devastating nature of nuclear weapons and the rhetoric of Iran being an irresponsible nation which could take the extreme step, if forced. However, such a contention cannot be taken at face value and the history of the nuclear age provides adequate proof for the restraint that nuclear weapons impose upon those who wield them.

    Even as the United States gets ready for President Obama’s second term, Iran and Israel are not too far behind in terms of their own respective elections slated in January and March 2013. It is perhaps only after the new leaderships have settled down in these countries will the next chapter in this stand-off unfold.