Iran, Islam and Nuclear Weapons: Engage Teheran instead of Isolating

30 Apr, 2013    ·   3908

D. Suba Chandran reflects on "Troubling Tehran: Reflections on Geopolitics" edited by Rajaram Nagappa and Arun Vishwanathan

Though there has been a plethora of books and commentaries on Pakistan, despite its strategic importance to India, Iran has never received the attention it deserves in New Delhi and the rest of country. In this background, the recently published book titled Troubling Teheran: Reflections on Geo Politics, edited by Prof Rajaram Nagappa and Dr Arun Vishwanathan from the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore, is a welcome addition.

Some of the essays in this book should create a larger debate in understanding contemporary Iran, from an Indian perspective.

Is nuclear Iran essentially a bad development for the region? Is Iran likely to be more rational, or irrational, once it possesses nuclear weapons? Has a new war begun on Iran, with the rest of international community on the other side? What are larger strategic interests of India and what should be the nature of Indo-Iran relationship?

The first question on nuclear Iran has assumed salience in the recent years, especially with the international community, led by the US that feels Teheran is likely to go nuclear shortly. It is generally believed and also expressed in the above mentioned book, that once the political decision is taken to test, it would not take more than six months for Iran to go ahead. So, it is not the capability, but the intention to test, as far as Iran is concerned.

The larger question that needs to be asked is - why should the international community worry about Iran going nuclear? If there are already five states accepted as nuclear weapons states – US, Russia, UK,  France and China, two states (India and Pakistan) having tested and wanting to break the monopoly of the above five states, and North Korea defying all pressure and norms, why should the rest of international community worry about Iran going nuclear?

First and foremost, there is an American fear, which is leading this debate against a nuclear Iran, under the guise of global nuclear disarmament and regional stability. Though a section within the international community, especially in Europe is against Iran going nuclear, which is more on ideological reasons relating to nuclear disarmament rather than geo-politics. The American fear is led primarily by geo-politics and strategic calculations. Had Tehran be ruled by Shah, perhaps Washington would have over looked the nuclear capability of Iran, as they have done and continue to do vis-a-vis  Israel.

Second, the American fear against a nuclear Iran is also led by its regional partners – Israel and Saudi Arabia. Both these countries are strategic partners of the US and deeply hostile towards Iran. While the nuclear capabilities of Israel have always been over looked and never debated, Saudi Arabia has out-sourced its nuclear capability to Pakistan. A section in India and elsewhere strongly believe, a substantial part of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme is indeed supported by Saudi Arabia.

The pressure on the US by these two countries against Iran is substantial. The sectarian divide and the larger regional strategic calculus pits Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran. For the US, such a policy outlook from two regional countries in the Middle East suits it larger push for Oil.

The above equation between US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, along with regional rivalries has also made Teheran equally suspicious and well prepared to meet any eventuality. Iran perceives nuclear weapons in this background, as a guarantor of its own security, against any international intervention. If anyone in Teheran has to learn any lesson from Libya, Iraq and North Korea – it would be in terms of possession nuclear weapons as deterrence against international intervention. Besides the security reasons, like in India and Pakistan, there is enormous national pride associated with Iran going nuclear.

Does Iran being an Islamic country play a role in how the US perceives nuclear weapons at the hands of Teheran? The unfortunate answer seems to be yes. Especially after the revolution in 1979, Islam in Iran is perceived by the US and some of its supporters as “radical” and essentially against regional and international security. What the rest of international community forgets is the chronology of Iran, dating back to the Persian Empire and the oldest civilization, has a rich and powerful history, unlike many of its neighbours in the region, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Some of the above mentioned countries are not even hundred years old!

Unfortunately, the rich history and civilization bedrock that Iran possesses does not get counted in concluding whether a nuclear Iran will behave rationally or otherwise. The international fear that a nuclear Iran under a Shia leadership will be irrational is unfounded. Given the fact that the only country to use nuclear weapons and kill hundreds of people in the history was avowedly secular and a beacon of modern day democracy!

It appears – linking Islam and nuclear Iran is a version of Clash of Civilization theory and does not to justice in understanding the geo-strategic calculations behind Teheran pursuing nuclear weapons. What is also clear, as could be seen from the recent developments – the US has succeeded in galvanizing the rest of international community, especially Europe to go along with it, in ensuring Iran is hit with more sanctions. This is almost an undeclared war both through the UN and outside it. But the larger question here is – whether sanctions have helped the UN and the rest of international community to achieve their primary objectives, or whether they have in fact worsened the situation.

Recent studies and available literature do project that international sanctions as a political strategy against a particular country has failed to achieve the desired results. Both North Korea and Iran do represent this reality. Perhaps, it is time the US and the rest of international community realizes this and pursue a different strategy and engage Iran.

The final question that also needs to be debated is Indo-Iran relationship in the contemporary environment. Though India and Iran boasts cultural and historical linkages between the two countries, the recent policy decisions, especially by New Delhi pose a serious question to the above. Under pressure from the US, India had to vote against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to secure the Indo-US nuclear deal. India is also under serious pressure to go slow on the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, again, thanks to Washington.

However, India will have to consider its own autonomy in foreign policy decision making, and also its long terms interests in Afghanistan. Iran will remain a crucial pivot to India’s economic and geo-strategic calculations in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Keeping history and the contemporary interests in mind, like the international community, India will also have to reshape its Iran strategy. Perhaps, India has a unique advantage here; it can use its goodwill in Iran to become a pivot for the international community and become a bridge towards Teheran. Isolating Iran will not yield any positive dividend – either to the region, or to the rest of international community.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir