June 04, 2012

Testy with Tehran

Suvrat Raju
June 03, 2012

Last week, negotiations between Iran and a set of world powers, led by western countries, ended with no resolution except for a promise to meet again. The West wants Iran to shut down its nuclear programme. Iran points out that international law grants it a right to pursue civilian nuclear activities, and that the West has failed to produce any concrete evidence linking it to nuclear weapons.
The Iran conflict can be frustrating to fathom because all serious observers agree that Iran is not currently building nuclear weapons. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has issued a fatwa against the nuclear bomb, which he recently reaffirmed by stating that Iran "considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin". 

The 2010 US national intelligence estimate, reflecting the consensus view of 16 American agencies, stated that "we do not know … if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons," implying that they do know that Iran is not doing so now.
The substantive disagreements between the West and Iran are on the past and the future. The West claims that before 2003, Iran conducted research into nuclear weapons that it might restart in the future. Iran denies that it ever had a weapons-related programme.
When the Bush administration first turned its sights on Iran, it made a host of allegations. It claimed that the Iranian military had suspicious links with a uranium mine; that Iran had conducted experiments with polonium-210, which can be used in nuclear weapons; and that traces of highly enriched uranium had been found at a physics research centre in Lavisan.

However, over the next few years, this story gradually fell apart. Some of the American claims were undercut by their own intelligence agencies which admitted in 2007 that Iran did not have an active weapons programme. Around the same time, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) finished investigating the other allegations above and found that none of them pointed to a weapons programme. For example, on the polonium issue, it declared in February 2008 that Iran's explanations were "consistent with the Agency's findings".
The only significant pieces of "evidence" that survived the collapse of the initial American narrative came from a "laptop" that US intelligence claimed to have acquired from an Iranian defector. Since no impartial third party could vouch for even the existence of this laptop, let alone its authenticity, the US was initially a little shamefaced in discussing it. 

The New York Times explained that "the Bush administration, seeming to understand the depth of its credibility problem, is only talking about the laptop computer and its contents in secret." In a 2009 IAEA board meeting, the then director-general Mohamed ElBaradei said that the US allegations might carry water "if all the documents … were authentic," and in unusual language for a diplomat, went on to say "but I have to underline this 'if' three times!"

However, with constant repetition and a change of guard at the IAEA, information from the laptop has gone from being ridiculed to becoming received wisdom.

Some of these allegations are technically far-fetched. For example, the US claims that Iran tested nuclear weapons -related explosives at its Parchin military facility in a container, which several experts feel is inappropriate for such a purpose. However, this is convenient because, to absolve itself, Iran would have to open up Parchin - which is a site of secret conventional military research - to international inspections.
Rather than recognising the dangerous precedent being set here, India has silently but surely sided with the US by repeatedly voting against Iran at the IAEA board, and moving away from the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project. The government has not even spared people-to-people relations. It is now harder for Iranian academics to get visas for India, and several Iranian students have been deported on various pretexts.

This is unfortunate because the people of Iran - who are famed for their hospitality - also represent a culture that is delightful in surprising ways. Enghelab Avenue, opposite Tehran University, hosts possibly the largest concentration of bookstores anywhere in the world. In the adjoining coffee shops, it is common to find young men and women - who outnumber men at universities and constitute about 70% of science and engineering students - engaged in lively intellectual discussions.

The resolution to the Iran-conflict lies not in punishing its people but in a simple proposal that will easily win the support of most countries in the world: a "nuclear free Middle East". This must involve Iran and also Israel, which has hundreds of nuclear warheads, is not a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and has a poor record on proliferation: recently declassified documents reveal that Israel was so close to the apartheid regime in South Africa that it offered to sell it nuclear weapons in "three sizes". 

The Indian government's tacit support of the double standards involved here are harming the country's credibility and increasing the probability of an armed conflict in Iran, which will be economically deleterious for India. When the demands of equity and justice coincide with India's direct economic interests, why is the government taking another path?

Suvrat Raju is a theoretical physicist with the Harish Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad
The views expressed by the author are personal

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