Event ReportsPublished on Mar 04, 2013
To understand the different aspects of the Iranian nuclear programme and its impact on the region, especially India, Observer Research Foundation, in collaboration with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), organised a workshop on March 4, 2013.
Sanctions only delay nuclear Iran

To understand the different aspects of the Iranian nuclear programme and its impact on the region, especially India, Observer Research Foundation, in collaboration with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), organised a workshop on March 4, 2013. The main themes covered during the workshop included Iran’s nuclear capability, the impact of sanctions and other measures of deterrence, the consequences of a nuclear Iran on the region and India’s strategic interests and concerns regarding Iran.

Iran’s efforts at building up its capabilities to develop a nuclear bomb were noted during the workshop. Iran’s repeated claims that it seeks to use nuclear energy solely for civilian use has largely been discarded as a myth. Although, Iran has no nuclear weapons as of now, nor has it taken the decision to go nuclear, it is building towards the capability. It may not have the ability to go nuclear immediately, but once it makes the political decision of developing nuclear bombs, it would be able to cross that threshold within a short of time.

There is a great deal of debate regarding the actual time that it would take Iran to actually develop the nuclear weapons. The participants suggested that the entire process -- including the enrichment of uranium to the optimum level, weaponising the fissile material and developing delivery mechanisms -- could take up to a couple of years.

The failure of sanctions and diplomatic efforts as being responsible for Iran stepping up its nuclear efforts were highlighted. The diplomatic efforts were considered to be a failure due to the lack of consensus among the major powers -- US, China and Russia -- on taking a uniform stand against Iran. This is further compounded by the legal approach undertaken by the US to the issue, which in the opinion of one participant, is the wrong approach. Through this measure, the US wants to highlight Iran as a legal pariah, which has violated the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). However, under Article 4 of the NPT, Iran has the right to enrich. But for this measure to be successful, the US has to be strong enough to convince Russia and China to take a similar stand. This has become extremely difficult given the change in the external balance of power against the backdrop of weakening American power.

In fact, a lot of Iranian behaviour is based on the perception of American power. There is a belief that the US power is in decline following decade-long wars in the region. Moreover, the priority seems to be focused on nation building at home. This perceived weakness reduces Iranian incentive to make any concessions. The US domestic politics further limits US diplomatic options. Three decades of demonisation of Iran at home has restricted America’s freedom to engage constructively or diplomatically with Iran.

Similarly, it was felt that the sanctions had, at best, managed to delay a nuclear Iran, but not change the Iranian decision-making or stop its capacity to go nuclear. For instance, one participant believed that the sanctions only slowed down the actual output but had completely unaffected the sophistication of the nuclear programme and the advanced nuclear technology capability of the Iranians, which would help Iran to overcome such obstacles. Moreover, it was felt that, as was the case with India, sanctions preventing exchange of technology would only encourage Iran to develop its own indigenous technology.

The sanctions have, however, hurt the Iranian economy, which has witnessed a sharp fall in oil exports, increase in inflation and decrease in the Iranian currency. Thus, in this respect, even though the sanctions have not changed the Iranian policy, it has made pursuing such a policy extremely costly. Moreover, another impact of sanctions has been on derailing Iran’s capability of producing weapons of the most lethal kind. For instance, the sanctions have made it difficult for Iran to find ingredients for solid fuel needed for Sejjil 2 missiles, which have a reach of about 1200 kms and are very hard to detect. It was felt that though the sanctions may not completely change the Iranian policy, the further tightening of sanctions may compel the Iranian establishment to make some tactical adjustments in order to avert a military conflict or to gain some concessions in way of a relaxing of the sanctions. But as nuclear weapons were seen as vital for national security, it was extremely unlikely that Iran would let go off them simply because of the impact of sanctions.

The possibility of covert operations and a military strike to deter the Iranians were also discussed. Although, covert operations like stuxnet and CIA operatives like the Tinners have been used in the past, they have not had a huge impact. Stuxnet, for example, was never really able to significantly reduce the centrifuge production, and though the Tinners did introduce some faulty designs into the nuclear programme they were easily detectable.

One participant believed that Iran’s confidence is growing as threats have been made against it in the past by both Israel and the US, but none of those threats have been carried out. Another participant noted that though US President Barack Obama would prefer a diplomatic solution to a military conflict, Iran’s increasing capability may reduce the possibility of resolving the issue through peaceful means. Even Obama, during the third round of debates with Mitt Romney in the lead up to the US elections, stated that Iran getting too close to the red line -when the capabilities get too much and the ability to detect is too low -would be the tipping point. Thus, Iran’s increasing capabilities may prompt a military strike against it most probably from Israel, which would definitely not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons, and in the process may drag the US into the equation as well.

However, one participant warned against the use of threats as they can create an environment wherein the use of force becomes the next logical step. Furthermore, the use of actual force against Iran without confirmation about the actual extent of Iran’s nuclear capability could result in a mistake that had been made in the case of Iraq in 2003, and is something that the international community, especially the West, should strive to avoid being repeated.

While it was noted that historically the reaction of nuclear states to new emerging nuclear states has been one of adjustment, this has not been the case with Iran. The nature and perception of the Iranian regime were seen as one fundamental cause for this. The US supported the Shah of Iran’s nuclear programme as the Shah’s regime never threatened western interests. But today the Islamic Republic of Iran is seen as a major threat to western interests. Thus, if the problem is with the nature of the regime than the solution to the problem is very different from what is being currently pursued. While, it may be possible to change Iranian behaviour by changing the regime -as was tried in the case of Iraq -it may not be possible to get a regime change on the cheap.

As far as consequences of a nuclear Iran were concerned, it was feared that nuclear weapons would make Iran more aggressive in its approach to its immediate neighbourhood. Iran has, undoubtedly, been strengthened in the region as a result of the Iraq war. A Shia crescent is emerging and Tehran supports Shia minorities in a lot of the Arab Gulf countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. It is also supporting groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. Thus, an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is likely to have greater capacity to support these groups. It is these internal power dynamics in these Arab countries and the Shia-Sunni schism, which is a boiling keg, which can be easily exploited by a nuclear armed Iran.

Although, there is a lot of resentment against Iran among the countries in the region, Iran’s nuclear weapons are likely to restrict the freedom of action of all these countries against Iran. It was felt that the most logical reaction to a nuclear Iran would be an effort to build up a strong defensive network in the Gulf as a measure of reassurance. However, it was also felt that this was unlikely to cause more conventional wars in the region. Instead there was a possibility of an increase in the subterranean and covert wars between the various states. The building up of defence capabilities of the Arab Gulf states could actually work in favour of the US as they would have to be the main suppliers of such equipment, thereby, strengthening their position in the region. There is also a possibility of Pakistan transferring the nuclear capability to Saudi Arabia. One participant raised the question if the sheer size of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal was an indicator of the fact that Pakistan was producing nuclear weapons for Saudi Arabia.

Finally, India’s interests, concerns and policy towards the region and the Iranian nuclear programme were discussed. Geography makes Iran very central to India’s strategic calculus. Although, India is not in favour of a nuclear armed Iran and wants it to abide by all the terms and conditions of the NPT, it believes that Iran has the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. India shares good bilateral relations with Iran, which are deeply rooted in historical and cultural linkages. Iran is important for India due to its energy needs and Iran’s potential to serve as a transit to Afghanistan.

More than Iran, stability in the entire region is considered crucial for India. According to one panellist, developments in West Asia impinge on Indian security unlike any other area, apart from India’s immediate neighbourhood. It is the Arab Gulf in particular, which of strategic importance to India as nearly 6.5 million Indians live in the region and it is India’s largest oil partner. A crisis in the Arab Gulf would be extremely damaging to Indian interests as it could lead to a major increase in oil prices. Thus, India is keen to ensure a stable order in the region.

India favours a diplomatic and peaceful solution to the Iranian issue. It has not and will not support a military solution to the problem. India has always supported the UN Security Council Resolutions on Iran’s nuclear programme. However, India refused to abide by unilateral sanctions imposed by individual countries like the US. Such sanctions have affected India-Iran bilateral relations, especially in oil trade. Moreover, such sanctions have also discouraged some Indian companies from investing in Iran as they fear that this could damage their business interests in western countries. However, it is believed that India-Iran relations can be sustained despite such sanctions. For instance, despite India’s vote against Iran at the IAEA, the relations are deep enough to overcome such differences and minor roadblocks.

(This report is prepared by Aryaman Bhatnagar, Associate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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