‘Nuclear Apartheid’

The ongoing Iranian nuclear crisis is all about a global nuclear order, based on what India’s former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh once described as ‘nuclear apartheid.’ To our friends in the Western world, the nuclear question has traditionally been uni-dimensional. The symptom, not disease, is their problem. Their undivided focus has been on non-proliferation only as a concept which they have ingeniously adapted to their own intent and purpose.

Ironically, their own huge nuclear stockpiles do not seem to prevent the nuclear powers from admonishing the rest of the world to refrain from attempts to join the nuclear club or be subject to punitive measures, a situation that amounts to telling people not to smoke while you have a cigarette dangling from your own mouth. Beyond rhetoric, there seems to be no progress towards a nuclear weapon-free world. If global disarmament is beyond reach today, it is only because the multilateral system is being used to legitimise the strategic and security set-up for a few.

No wonder, the world today witnesses an erosion of arms control and disarmament measures, violation of treaty obligations and weakening of UN disarmament institutions. The non-proliferation agenda is being followed in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner with scant commitment to the overarching goal of ‘general and complete disarmament’ as envisaged in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The situation has been aggravated by the burgeoning arms trade and country-specific discriminatory supply of nuclear fuel and technology by some of the major nuclear powers.

It is in this dismal backdrop that an international crisis over Iran’s nuclear program has been brewing for more than a decade now. The West led by the US harbours grave reservations about the avowed peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, accusing it of not reporting some of its nuclear facilities to the IAEA as required under its obligation as a signatory to the NPT.

Iran for its part denies these allegations and insists that its entire nuclear activity has been consistent with its NPT obligations and that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes alone. It also considers uranium enrichment as its right as defined by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The Iranian nuclear crisis is not a sudden eruption. It is now in its eleventh year. Iran has a fairly developed nuclear infrastructure which it has built over years. It’s known key facilities include a power plant at Bushehr, a uranium conversion facility at Isfahan, another enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy water plant at Arak. Until this crisis began in the summer of 2002, questions were being raised only about the Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation and the resultant development of the Bushehr light water nuclear reactor complex. Natanz and Arak nuclear sites are now the focus of the current crisis.

IAEA’s regulations prescribe breach when a nuclear reaction actually takes place in a given facility. Since Iran had not engaged in the alleged nuclear activity by the time its infrastructure in question was detected, technically it could not be found in breach of its Treaty obligations, even though it could be faulted for having been politically remiss. In October 2007, IAEA Chief El Baradie had reportedly confirmed that the inspections of Iranian installations found no evidence of Iran developing nuclear weapons.

 Iran has a fairly developed nuclear infrastructure which it has built over years. Its known key facilities include a power plant at Bushehr, a uranium conversion facility at Isfahan, another enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy water plant at Arak.
 In its historical perspective, it is a crisis of choice, not necessity. Initially the US was not even ready to talk to Iran and instead deputed its three EU partners, France, Germany and Great Britain to engage Tehran with a demand for cessation of its enrichment activity. The stand-off continued even after several rounds of negotiations and punitive resolutions of the UN Security Council since February 2006 calling on Iran to halt its nuclear work. Until President Obama came on the scene, the EU troika never seriously tried to explore a non-confrontational course of action towards Iran.

Pursuant to Obama’s new policy of direct talks with Iran, it was in October 2009 that a structured dialogue between Iran and the P-5+1 (US, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany) was held in Geneva. While the West’s key demand remained for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, Iran maintained that its uranium-enrichment and nuclear research activities for peaceful purposes were lawful and within its right under Article IV of NPT, and thus irreversible. Even in that deadlock, the Geneva talks did seem to have provided an opening for diplomacy between the two sides. It was seen as an “opening” of a door that had remained closed for 30 years.

Unlike his predecessor, President Obama was at least able to engage Iran and with Russian help seemed to have extracted more out of Iran in eight hours than his predecessor’s muscular posturing did in eight years. A proposal emerged on exploring the possibility of an arrangement involving shipment of Iranian uranium to Russia for reprocessing into higher grade for medical purposes and its packaging in France for use by an Iranian research reactor in Tehran. It has been one of the ‘compromises’ that have been on the table as part of the ongoing engagement process.

Since then, further discussions were held, first in Bagh dad in May 2012 and then in Almaty in February 2013, on the modalities of an arrangement that could end this decade-long crisis. There have also been other developments with a salutary effect on the engagement process. President Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the June 15 election this year came as a big ‘game-changer.’ Tehran now shows a new outlook altogether seeking to alleviate West’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities in order to get relief from the sanctions that have crippled its economy.

In late September, Rouhani’s telephone call to US President Barrack Obama, the first-ever contact at this level since 1979, provided a new momentum to the efforts for an end to crisis. President Obama welcomed what he described a “unique opportunity to make progress with the new leadership in Tehran”. The second round of Geneva on November 7-9, 2013 remained inconclusive. Based on direct talks between Iran and the U.S. prior to Geneva, Washington, however, seemed to have sensed Tehran’s anxiety to come to terms with the minimum requisite benchmarks to be able to have sanctions lifted.

No wonder, Tehran has been receiving encouraging signals from the U.S. and Europe on Iran’s right to uranium enrichment under certain conditions. On their part, the Iranian officials too appeared to be amenable to negotiating on some of the fundamental aspects of their nuclear program, including a lower level of enrichment and other measures needed to establish the peaceful nature of its nuclear program in return for lifting of sanctions and acceptance of its right to enrichment under the NPT. But at the same time, President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei have both described Iran’s nuclear rights under the NPT as a ‘red line’.

Apparently, diplomacy on both sides managed to find a way out, at least as a first step, of meeting each other’s concerns without crossing any ‘red lines.’ At the third round of Geneva talks (November 20-24), an interim six-month deal was finally reached limiting Iranian uranium enrichment to 5 % in return for partial relief from economic sanctions. Within hours after announcing the deal, however, both sides were making different interpretations of its operative contents. US Secretary of State John Kerry claimed ‘the deal actually rolls back the Iranian nuclear program from where it is today.’ whereas the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif insisted it has not given up its right to enrichment.

No matter how close the two parties may have come in clinching this deal, given the invisibles at play on both sides, they still remain far apart in their ultimate goals and objectives. It now remains to be seen whether this six-month life of the Geneva deal genuinely marks the beginning of an end to the Iranian nuclear crisis.


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