The truth about Tehran
THE INDIAN EXPRESS
Posted online: Monday, April 28, 2008 at 2318 hrs
Its history of nuclear proliferation brings up a few skeletons in America’s closet too
The American spokesperson’s advice to India to impress upon Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during his visit to Delhi, that he desist from going ahead with Iran’s uranium enrichment programme has with some justification infuriated many of our members of Parliament. Minister for External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee has given a measured response that the responsibility for determining whether Iran had deviated from the path of peaceful application of uranium enrichment vests with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But he has discreetly omitted to mention that the IAEA has not yet found itself in a position to give a clean chit to Iran. In all this controversy, the Indian public has not yet been given a clear picture of Iran’s nuclear effort and why India, very rightly, voted against Iran in the IAEA in 2006 and 2007. Nor has the central figure in this issue, Dr A.Q. Khan, received adequate attention in this country.
Iranian efforts to acquire a clandestine nuclear-weapon capability go back to 1987. At that time, Iran was fighting the last year of its eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Saddam’s aggression was supported by the United States and many Arab countries. The Muslim Ummah, the world over, did not condemn Saddam’s aggression and his use of chemical weapons on Iran, or the hundreds of missiles he sent raining on that country. The Indian government of that day did not worry about Shia feelings. When Iran took the issue of the use of weapons of mass destruction to the United Nations, the US and European countries sat on their hands and took no action against Saddam. At that stage, Iran approached Khan to help it with the uranium enrichment programme.
While the US started talking to Pakistan in the late ’90s about Khan’s links with North Korea, the Iranian secret enrichment programme came to the notice of the IAEA only in 2001 as a result of the disclosure of some expatriates. Whether the US inaction on Khan and Iranian proliferation was the result of the total incompetence of the CIA or was a policy decision is not clear at this stage. Iran dodged the IAEA for some time and finally admitted dealing with Khan.
The 2005 and 2006 IAEA resolutions were about the inadequacy of Iranian cooperation with the IAEA in clearing up the uranium enrichment issue involving Khan. For other countries of the world (including the various Islamic countries), it was an issue of proliferation in some distant country. For India, it was a case of clandestine proliferation involving Pakistan, Khan, the US and various West European countries which were the sources for Khan’s proliferation. India would have made a laughing stock of itself if it had ignored Khan’s activities. According to the former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers (a disclosure he repeated during his visit to the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses two months ago), Khan had been allowed to go free by the Dutch authorities, after his arrest twice in 1975 and 1986, on the intervention of the CIA. Therefore, it is a fair assumption that the US knew what Iran and Khan were up to in 1987. Further, the Pakistani chief of army staff told a US assistant secretary in 1990 that Pakistan would sell its uranium enrichment technology to Iran if the US invoked the Pressler Amendment.
A.Q. Khan and Iran signed two deals for the supply of centrifuges to Tehran. The Iranians did not report this programme to the IAEA but kept it a secret in total violation of their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The US also did not disclose (and has not disclosed till today) its interest in Khan. While Khan was the agent and mastermind, the entire source of the supply of equipment and technology for Iranian proliferation was West Europe. The Indian foreign secretary at that time, Shyam Saran, raised the issue of countries being permissive of the supply side of proliferation and focusing entirely on the recipient.
The US has not been serious in pursuing the involvement of the Pakistani state, army chiefs or A.Q. Khan in the Iranian proliferation. The West European countries have been lax in clamping down on their own firms which supply equipment and technology to Iran. Last year in the US Congress, there were complaints about the US not extraditing Urs Tinner, a notorious Swiss proliferator, for prosecution in Switzerland.
Given this record, neither the US nor the West European countries are in a position to preach to India. At the same time, it is a totally mistaken perception to argue that India’s policy on Iran’s nuclear effort is dictated by the US. On the other hand, those who are against the Indian vote in the IAEA are trying to protect Khan and his patron, the US, and his sources of supply in the West European countries. The US is trying to shield its past proliferation sins and patronage of Khan by bullying Iran to stop its enrichment activity. It appears to think that exaggerating the Iranian threat to West Europe is the best way of applying global pressure on Iran.
The right step at this time for Iran is to satisfy the IAEA that its enrichment programme is entirely peaceful. This can be done by throwing open all its facilities to IAEA inspection. Dr ElBaradei is an independent-minded IAEA chief who had stood up to American bullying. The IAEA is persisting in its efforts to have an overall perspective on the Iranian nuclear activity to be in a position to certify that Iran has no nuclear weapons programme. Latest reports indicate that both Iran and the IAEA are finding common ground to solve the issue. Meanwhile, last December, the American intelligence community produced a unanimous report that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons programme, not its uranium enrichment programme, in the fall of 2003 when Khan’s involvement in proliferation to Iran and Libya became public.
There is nothing wrong in the US giving advice to India on the Iranian nuclear issue. That is part of international diplomacy. What is unfortunate is that our diplomats, our parliamentarians and our political leaders do not talk back and give the US sound advice in their own national interest. This lack of self-confidence reflects a still lingering colonial mentality. Instead of getting angry with the Americans, why do we not tell the American public and legislators all the things they had done to be permissive of nuclear proliferation?
The writer is a senior defence analyst