Monday, April 15, 2013

Indo-Israel Relations and Iran’s Nuclear Question


Kanwal Sibal, 
Dean, Centre for International Relations and Diplomacy, VIF

In the last 20 years or so there has been a remarkable growth in India-Israel relationship, which is all to the good. Criticism that India wants to work on this relationship more behind the scenes rather than giving it full visibility, is not unjustified. This should change. More openness would consolidate the image of independence of our foreign policy.

The problem is that we have long convinced ourselves that there would be a price to pay not only with regard to friendly Islamic countries, but also our own Muslim population. We have created this mental block for ourselves, which our policy makers will take time to overcome.

The point is raised about our voting against Israel in the United Nations. Frankly, too much should not be made of this issue. Actually, such voting has not mattered much in affecting realities on the ground, and probably does so even less today. Behind the charade of voting in the UN in particular way, we should look at the developing reality of the India-Israel relationship. The two should be separated.

When India votes in the United Nations in a particular way, it is because of the difficulty in dramatically changing past positions taken over several decades. Any radical change can generate an unnecessary controversy, especially as some of the core issues underlying the Israel-Palestinian issue have not moved towards any durable solution. We have also to weigh our relations with the Islamic world- whatever the differences between them and their hypocrisies- the lobby that is comprised of 1½ billion Muslims. Some kind of a balance has to be found, just as Israel is cautious about taking positions on India-Pakistan issues. This is a small price to pay in terms of having a cover domestically and internationally to develop our bilateral relations with Israel, strengthening them and giving them more visibility.

The other issue is Iran going nuclear. We have to look at the so-called domino effect of Iran going nuclear more carefully. I believe there cannot be any such domino effect unless, primarily, the West opens the doors to nuclear technology to the Muslim countries or China does. If there is fear that Saudi Arabia or other countries would go nuclear, then the way to avoid this is to exercise very stringent controls on any transfer of nuclear technology, including civil nuclear technology, to these countries. As of now, I don’t think that any Muslim country, barring Iran that has now got a nuclear reactor from Russia, has a nuclear reactor. There is one being built in UAE by the Koreans, but other than this not a single Islamic country has it. Some of them have experimental reactors, but most are non-functional. These countries, therefore, do not have a base to go nuclear, and if such a base is created, it will be by western companies, besides China and, potentially, Pakistan. Therefore, why not focus on the sources of proliferation.

The United States and the West had a robust policy on non-proliferation, which for years and years we suffered from, and even now the doors are not fully open for us, as, for example, the issues of re-processing and enrichment technology with the Americans. There is a bar to that even in our 123 Agreement with the United States carries restrictions in this regard. The Russians, however, have not put any such conditions in our bilateral agreement with them, and the French are saying everything is open in terms of cooperation. But these are grey areas. What I mean is that even with a country like India, the international community is not ready to open the doors of nuclear technologies. So, there is absolutely no case for them to open the doors of nuclear technologies to potentially problematic countries.

In any case, if Iran goes nuclear and other countries in the region follow, from our point of view there are two points to note: one is that it reduces Pakistan’s calling card as the only Islamic country with a nuclear bomb; if four or five other Islamic countries have them, it devalues their exceptional status. I am saying this half in zest and half seriously too. Second, Pakistan is being given so much space in the area of proliferation that is baffling. This is being given not only by the United States of America, but indirectly even by Israel, as Israel is concentrating only on the threat that Iran’s nuclear capability can pose to it. I don’t see, for example, the very powerful Jewish lobby in the United States putting pressure on the US Government to do something about Pakistan’s nuclear capability. Pakistan could be a source of proliferation of nuclear technology to the Arab world should Iran go nuclear. China announced very recently the agreement to set up of a new 1000 MW power plant in Pakistan, and there is not a squeak from the rest of the world.

From Indian perspective, 99 percent of our security has already been compromised by the ease with which Pakistan was allowed to go nuclear by the West, with its unwillingness to focus on the China-Pakistan nuclear connection. If Iran goes nuclear that might add maybe one percent to our concern, but not much more.

If we have a different perspective, it is not to say that we contest the reality of Israeli concern, given its history, which requires it take the existential threat to its security far more seriously than others. The unacceptable statements that the Iranian leadership makes about the existence of Israel do not make sense and add to concerns all round. It is difficult to understand why Iran makes such statements because, as it is, Iran is beleaguered internationally from the diplomatic point of view and it makes things worse for itself by unnecessarily provoking not only US opinion, but international opinion in general. Why Iran should stand out as the sole country to talk about the eventual destruction of Israel is not easily comprehensible.

Additionally, Iran’s own future, its identity, its vocation, its civilizational profile do not depend on Israel, the nature of its relationship with Israel or the creation or the destruction of Israel as a state. Why does Iran give so much importance to this issue? It would seem that Iran considers this is part of Iran’s confrontation with the United States of America; in itself it is a side issue. The Iranians claim that they have never talked about the destruction of Israel as such- they speak of one state in Palestine, which implies, of course, the effacement of Israel as a separate entity. Iran’s position is also part of its effort to retain its leadership of the Islamic world.

Should one take the Iran threat to destroy Israel seriously? Unlike Pakistan, which is a 65 year old state, Iran is a three to four thousand year old country and civilization. They are not going to risk the destruction of their own civilization in return, which has such a glorious past, simply because of the Israel-Palestinian issue.

As regards India’s concerns about oil price stability being a factor in our concerns about the Iranian nuclear issue, the position is not clear. Some people are wondering why in view of persistent global recession oil prices are so high. The dynamics of oil prices are quite complex. The Iranians had thought that all these military threat against it would inflate oil prices and they will have a bonanza. In fact, one arrow in their quiver has been found to be useless because oil prices haven’t shot up to the levels that people thought that they would in view of the uncertainties surrounding Iran. The game is complex, and reasons why oil prices rise and fall need better understanding. I wouldn’t take the question of oil price stability that seriously in terms of the Iranian nuclear question and its impact on the Arab world.

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