July 11, 2020
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Enlightened Independence

To say that the Indian vote at the IAEA jeopardizes India's independence in decision making is to ignore the very real threats to the region and India's limitations in dealing with them alone.

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Enlightened Independence
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Last Saturday, on the 4th of February, twenty seven of the thirty five members of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), expressed their increasing concern over Iran's nuclear programme. Only a few months earlier, the Board had warned Iran of an international "confidence deficit" in its nuclear programme, and had requested Iran to cooperate more fully with the IAEA to allay the doubts which had been expressed.

Unfortunately, Iran chose, through actions and statements at the highest levels of government, to move towards deepening the controversy and intensifying suspicions of its intentions. The United Kingdom, France , Germany and the US together with Russia and China decided to call an emergency meeting of the Board -- not to refer Iran to the Security Council straightaway, but to increase the pressure on Iran, which appeared to be trying to extract as many concessions from the EU-3 as they could. In the event, the Iranian gamble did succeed to some extent .

The new resolution contained some interesting additions to the ones previously adopted, apart from the reporting to the Security Council. In the first place, the last two preambular paragraphs seem to be aimed at reassuring Iran, in that preambular para (l) states that the Board was resolved " to work for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue" and preambular (m) recognizes "that a solution to the Iranian issue would contribute…to realizing the objective of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, including their means of delivery".

Preambular paras set the context within which action is recommended in the operative paras; no decision is implied. Nonetheless, the amendment was aimed at Israel's alleged nuclear arsenal and has been promoted assiduously by Egypt in the UN; on its reluctant acceptance by the US and the Europeans, Egypt voted in favour of the resolution.

The decisions inherent in the resolution are contained in the operative paras of which paras 2, 3 and 8 are perhaps the most significant.. Paras 2 and 8 require the Director General to "report" to the UN Security Council the steps Iran had to take, all the DG's reports and all the resolutions of the Board even before the next scheduled meeting of the Board, and immediately after the next meeting of the Board, in March.

This is not a "referral" but a reporting procedure. The Board's intention is clearly to continue the work in the IAEA while keeping the UN Security Council informed-no action is required of the Security Council, nor is any recommended. A "referral", on the other hand would imply that the Board had gone as far as it could and was sending the case to the Security Council for further action. Action is transferred to the jurisdiction of the Security Council. Even though Iran has reacted angrily to the resolution, it has so far achieved its objective of retaining, for the moment, the issue within the jurisdiction of the IAEA.

Finally, for the first time, a reference, however indirect has been made in para 3 to the linkages of Iran's nuclear programme with the infamous A.Q.Khan network which sold nuclear weapon technology to several countries including North Korea and Iran. "Serious concern" was voiced at Iran's possession of a document on " the production of uranium metal hemispheres, since, as reported by the Secretariat, this process is related to the fabrication of nuclear weapon components.." The supply of centrifuges by A.Q.Khan to Iran had already been noted. Though centrifuges can be used for civilian purposes also, Khan was known to have been peddling weapon technology and materials.

The resolution had only three votes against and five abstentions. An analysis of the vote would reveal that a majority of developing and non-aligned countries voted in favour; the three who voted against clearly see the entire issue as one reflecting US's hostile attitude towards Iran, rather than as a issue relating to the dangers of proliferation of nuclear weapons. Cuba, Syria and Venezuela are countries whose relations with the US are also hostile.

The abstention votes are more complex : it is likely that Indonesia, Libya and Algeria were sensitive to the current furore over some cartoons which appeared in a Danish newspaper and which have been reproduced in several European papers as well, which are not only offensive to Muslims, but also insensitive to the current tensions in the Islamic world. Reactions have been violent in many Muslim countries with extremist groups taking advantage of the clumsiness of the European governments in handling the issue. It is also likely that the effort of Iran to project the Board's actions as an outcome of US policy, may have influenced these countries.

This can be understood in India too, where the Left parties have reacted similarly. South Africa is a different case: when it acceded to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon State, it had six nuclear weapons. After dismantling the weapons, South Africa retained large amounts of weapons grade material. It has refused to publish even a summary of the inventory of the weapons grade material in its possession. It has clearly stated that it reserves the right to be in control of the entire nuclear fuel cycle, a right guaranteed under the NPT and also claimed by Iran.

In analysing India's vote for the resolution, and the reactions domestically, it appears that the opposition to the government's position is based, not on an appreciation of the dangers of further proliferation in our neighbourhood, nor indeed on India's foreign relations, including with Iran The opposition to the favourable vote appears to be based on an interpretation of the situation similar to that of Cuba and Venezuela.

What could be the reasons behind India's vote? The government has said that it does not want another nuclear armed neighbour. Iran's linkages with the A.Q.Khan network and with several non-state groups would make any country in the region wary. As pointed out Khan was not dealing in civilian nuclear technology, which Iran, as a signatory of the NPT could easily have acquired elsewhere-as it has, from Russia. Iran had also concealed parts of its nuclear activities from the IAEA for 18 years, until information from Iranian dissident groups revealed two facilities Iran had not declared.

Instead of reassuring the region and the international community of its intentions not to produce nuclear weapons, Iran has chosen ambiguity and defiance. While the reaction may be understandable to India, which has never reacted well to threats, there is no doubt that the Indian priority would be on de-escalation of the situation, and finding a way to ensure that Iran does not develop these weapons. International relations do not progress in a straight, smooth line.

There is a further factor which needs to be kept in mind; in the case of Iraq, when the US got no support in the UN, it decided to take unilateral action, with of course the UK, and with very negative consequences-for Iraq, for the region and for the US itself. Keeping the US on board in the multilateral process while finding the most persuasive pressures on Iran is a complex task; it is not something India can do on its own. It can, and did try with twenty six other countries last Saturday. To say that this jeopardizes India's independence in decision making is to ignore the very real threats to the region and India's limitations in dealing with them alone.


Arundhati Ghose was India's permanent representative/ ambassador to the United Nations. In 1996, she dramatically vetoed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at the Conference on Disarmament, a step that some say would not have been taken without her.

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