Paradoxes of a Nuclear Iran
Iran’s nuclear ambitions have dominated the western policy makers as it promises to alter the geopolitical dynamics of West Asia with concomitant impact on global nuclear equations. As per western estimates it would escalate the threat matrix for Iran and provide impetus to Arab countries joining the race for nuclear weapons. The Persian vs Arab bomb race would heat up aided by the AQ Khan Wal-Mart of Pakistan. A combination of deterrence and containment might eventually be what the U.S. is forced to do, since it seems unlikely that the U.S. will succeed in dissuading Iran from going nuclear. The global and regional implications of such a race are ominous and merit continued efforts at preventing Iran’s ambitions without starting a new war.
Understanding that Iran’s actions and behaviour are rational, or at the very least not entirely irrational, should help in thinking through whether a nuclear armed Iran poses an existential threat to Israel and whether the conventional doctrines of nuclear deterrence and containment might have any traction in the context of the Middle East. Iran’s nuclear programme is as much about national prestige and regional standing as strategic interest. The current Iranian leadership would probably prefer to be isolated with the bomb, than on warm terms with the international community without the bomb.
Stability of the region (Afghanistan specific) without extra regional powers like US would depend on the alignment of power between two camps: Iran, India and Russia on one hand and China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on the other. It is opined that to maintain reasonable balance of power America will have to play the swing state between the two blocks. It is a result of this growing schism between America (with Israel mounting the pressure) and Iran which is realigning anti-American forces such as Russia, China and Pakistan thus marginalizing any US efforts to play the swing state. In either case, Russia, China and Iran have stepped up activity to fill the post 2014 vacuum in Af Pak. The acrimonious interplay between the “Sunni block” (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and the UAE) against the “Shiite block” (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon) accentuates the regional fault lines further.
Arabs cannot accept a nuclear-armed Iran because this would mean Persian superiority over the Arabs. Secondly, if Iran obtained nuclear weapons there would emerge a balance of power between Iran and Israel. However, Iran’s main goal is not confrontation with Israel but with the Arab countries, especially the Persian Gulf countries. So it is clear to the latter that Iran is a menace to them in the first place rather than to Israel.
Turkey, though secular and protected by NATO umbrella, may want to build a capability of their own to counterbalance Iran’s would-be bomb. Muslim countries of the ex-Soviet Union, such as Azerbaijan, which is a predominantly Shia country, and Uzbekistan have a direct stake. Those are only some of the countries that could be threatened by nuclear-capable Iran. The Shia crescent is likely to disturb the equations in Iraq, Bahrain Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Chinese fear that in case Iran got caught in a conflict they would lose their oil market and not receive cheap and stable oil. Given China’s increasingly closer energy and economic ties with Iran, Beijing is thus caught in a dilemma vis-à-vis the issue of uranium enrichment in Iran.
Indian Policy Options
India is already on the nuclear radar of China, Pakistan, Russia and US. Another name in the list would materially make little difference but would severely impinge upon its energy security (both from Arabs and Iran) and be an anathema to its Af Pak and connect Central Asia Policies. Thus it is in Indian interest to diffuse the tensions between the West and Iran while promoting peace in the region.
The key question remains whether India has the requisite bandwidth to ensure reproachment between US and Iran. There is a school of thought which argues that India should not get involved in the US – Iran feud and let Russia and China take care of it.
Secondly, Ambassador Ishrat Azziz articulates that India should stand firm in stating that the IAEA should be the agency that should deal with Iran’s nuclear profile. If an anti-Iran resolution or a resolution perceived by Iran as against it comes up for vote in the UNSC, India must abstain and avoid taking sides. If it is proved that Iran has enriched to higher percentages other than for peaceful purposes, then India might have to take a stance.
A nuclear Iran ultimately may be a far less dangerous proposition to starting a war to prevent the Iranian bomb.