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Iranian Nuclear Deterrent On the Horizon

June 17, 2024 12:34 IST
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The crises of the 21st century, 9/11, the economic meltdown, COVID-19, Russia-Iran war and the Hamas-Israel war seem to be never ending.

In this situation, Iran might be contemplating a nuclear deterrent to defend itself, observes Ambassador T P Sreenivasan, the distinguished long-time Rediff contributor who turns 80 on June 17.

IMAGE: Military personnel stand guard at a nuclear facility in the Zardanjan area of Isfahan, Iran, April 19, 2024, in this screengrab taken from video. Photograph: West Asia News Agency via Reuters

Having sat next to Iranian delegates, ranging from first secretaries to foreign ministers at the meetings of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna for four years, I sensed that Iran secretly admired the Indian nuclear strategy.

They often inquired how India managed to stay out of the NPT and fought its way to legitimacy as a responsible technologically advanced state and escaped sanctions.

They were aware that their cardinal mistake was signing of the NPT and if it wanted to exit the treaty, they would face the same situation as North Korea, which became a nuclear pariah even after signing the NPT.

At the same time, they were attracted to the North Korean model, as it was clear that it was its dubious reputation as a nuclear power that deterred others from attacking it.

Although there is a fatwa against Iran possessing nuclear weapons, because of the belief that such inhumane weapons were against Islam, Iran aspired to developing a nuclear deterrent, particularly because its arch rivals, US and Israel, had the capacity to launch a nuclear attack on Iran.


Iran had begun cooperating with the IAEA ever since Iranian dissidents in Europe revealed the existence of major uranium enrichment facilities in Iran which exceeded the requirements of peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Moreover, Iran was not an energy deficient nation to justify a nuclear programme.

In fact, it was its oil wealth that enabled it to acquire nuclear material from Pakistan and North Korea.

Iran was also sensitive to any criticism on our part about NPT countries acquiring enrichment facilities.

India worked with Iran by supporting the right of countries to develop their own energy policies for their development.

But we stood firm when there was any sign of the nonaligned group in the IAEA attempting to endorse the NPT or condone excessive enrichment of uranium.

We were not participants in the negotiations between Iran and the Western countries on a nuclear deal, but Iran brought the draft agreement to the nonaligned to muster support for its position in the negotiations.

We made gentle suggestions to Iran to protect our own position on the NPT.

We reconciled our positions in the spirit of our partnership with Iran.

But on one occasion, Iran brought to the nonaligned group a formulation which was against our traditional formulation on the NPT.

I immediately expressed my reservation on that formulation and requested an amendment.

Iran maintained that the Western negotiators had indicated that there should be an outright justification for the NPT and that those countries which had not signed the treaty should do so immediately.

When we could not reach an agreement, Iran suggested that India could express reservation and let the text go as a nonaligned draft.

I argued that since our meeting was informal, a reservation would be meaningless.

I offered that we would deal appropriately with the draft when it came out of the negotiating group.

When we reached an impasse, I was told that I had a telephone call outside.

I went out and took the call and, to my surprise found that it was the foreign secretary on the line.

He asked me to cooperate with Iran as there had been an intervention by Tehran on the matter and we should be helpful.

I said that what Iran wanted was against our established position, but I would try and help out Iran to the extent possible.

Hardly had I gone back to my seat, when I had another call from Delhi and this time it was the national security adviser, my old boss at the UN.

He was normally a purist in such matters and he surprised me by saying that something should be done to avoid a face-off with Iran.

When I went back to my seat, I told the Iranian ambassador, "You have set the Ganges on fire."

He smiled and said that he was happy that I had been given high level instructions from New Delhi! I said nothing, but asked for an adjournment as it was very late.

Iran said that the draft had to be submitted to the bigger group in the morning, but agreed to the adjournment.

Then we sat down till morning to work out a formula and all was well that ended well.

IMAGE: International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi meets with Mohammad Eslami, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, in Isfahan, Iran, May 7, 2024. Photograph: Iran's Atomic Energy Organization/West Asia News Agency/Handout via Reuters

This incident was a clear indication that Iran was determined to strengthen their nuclear option.

It was also evident that the Iranian ambassador had the clout to wake up the foreign secretary and the national security advisor on such an issue.

After that, whenever we had a different opinion, he would say, "Do you want me to set the Ganges on fire again?"

It is well known that Iran made several concessions in reaching the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPO) between Iran and the Western group, agreeing to limit enrichment and take other measures to avoid any provocative action for fifteen years because of the severe impact of the sanctions on the Iranian economy.

When then US president Donald J Trump withdrew from the JCPO and enhanced the sanctions, the Iranians became more tough even with the sanctions in place.

The negotiations for reviewing the Plan were close to fruition many times. but an agreement has been elusive.

With the collapse of the global order, characterised by the rejection of treaties and the failure of the UN to act decisively even in the midst of daily massacres in Gaza and Ukraine.

The crises of the 21st century, 9/11, the economic meltdown, COVID-19, Russia-Iran war and the Hamas-Israel war seem to be never ending.

In this situation, Iran might be contemplating a nuclear deterrent to defend itself.

Nobody bombs North Korea, but there is no sign of even a ceasefire in Gaza and Ukraine.

Moreover, as the sole champion of Palestine, willing to wage war over the issue, Iran must be thinking of developing a nuclear deterrent and then negotiate with the west from a position of strength.

In that event, the calculation will be that the new sanctions will not be much more severe than what Iran is facing now.

The death of President Raisi and the foreign minister may be the last brick on a deterrent edifice in the making.

Ayatollah Khamenei's declaration that Raisi's death will not lead to any change in policy was to be expected, but it should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The change of president with implications for the choice of the next supreme leader is an appropriate occasion for introspection and strengthening of national security.

It is well known that Iran has sufficient enriched uranium to make a bomb within days.

The retribution may be severe, but an Indian style deterrence may be Iran's ambition.

IMAGE: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei visits the Iranian centrifuges in Tehran, June 11, 2023. Photograph: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/West Asia News Agency via Reuters

President Raisi's sudden death has opened up the possibility of a churning in the roles of the president and the other leaders including the successor to the Ayatollah.

The exchange of missile attacks between Israel and Iran will have their own impact on military plans of Iran.

It has no ally to bank on, while Palestinians are being decimated.

China may have some interest in propping up Iran against the US and the West.

The peace conference that President Xi Jinping has proposed will shore up the confidence of Iran to take serious actions for its own security.

This may be the right moment for Iran to plead vulnerability and announce some kind of tests that will establish its nuclear path.

If the decision is delayed beyond the US elections, Trump may take such action that may lead to a regime change and the eventual weakening of Iran.

A nuclear deterrent may appear to be the most attractive option for it in the emerging world order.

Ambassador T P Sreenivasan is a long-time contributor to
You can read his earlier columns here.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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