Book Review: Contextualising Iran

30 Apr, 2013    ·   3906

Manpreet Sethi reviews “Troubling Tehran - Reflections on Geopolitics” edited by Rajaram Nagappa and Arun Vishwanathan

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Senior Fellow at CAPS

Troubling Tehran - Reflections on Geopolitics
Arun Vishwanathan and Rajaram Nagappa (Eds.)
New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2013
Pp: 139, Rs 895/-

For little more than a decade now, the international community has been struggling to resolve the issues thrown up as a result of the allegations against the suspected military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear programme. While Iran’s nuclear ambitions go back to the 1970s when the country was under the rule of the Shah, disclosures about clandestine weapons related activities by the country were first made by some dissidents in 2002.

From then to now, the IAEA has instituted umpteen inspections (according to one Iranian claim, IAEA has spent 7500 man-hours in Iran and held 100 visits without notice), the US has put out several national intelligence estimates (the latest one concluding that Iran has not yet made the decision to make nuclear weapons), Israel has offered its own assessments, and think tanks in the West have worked overtime to present scholarly articles on what the issues are and how to resolve them.

India has largely been a quiet observer and recipient of this analysis. There has been a general tendency to view the issue as one of NPT violation and hence leaving it to NPT member states to resolve it. As and when India has had to take a stand, as in the case of voting at the IAEA first to refer the case of Iran to the UN Security Council, and subsequently for the imposition of sanctions, it has seemed uncomfortable and apologetic - to both Iran and the US. In fact, circumstances turned out such that the issue of the vote on Iran in 2006 came at a time when the Indo-US nuclear deal was being negotiated. Owing to this, the media, and even the strategic community, has largely approached Iran from the perspective of Indo-US relations. Consequently, the Iranian nuclear issue has been a case of tightrope-walking for India, given that New Delhi has strategic relations with both nations who are so overtly hostile to one another.

Despite the criticality of this issue for India’s foreign policy, it is surprising that no serious analytical work was attempted on the subject. It is in this context that the book under review comes not a minute too soon. It makes a useful contribution by squarely placing the issue of ‘Troubling Tehran’ in India’s foreign policy matrix. Written by a set of Indian scholars from diverse backgrounds and one Iranian journalist, it brings together individual perspectives that contribute to the richness of the discussion in the book.

Edited by two Professors of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, the writings naturally focus on technical assessments of the Iranian nuclear, missile, and armed forces’ capabilities. They corroborate a widely held view that Iran’s scientific base is not lacking in capability for making nuclear weapons. Interestingly, the chapter on the technical appraisal of Iran’s nuclear activities also dwells on the domestic availability of uranium, an issue that most Western analyses have ignored while providing guesstimates on how quickly and how much fissile material Iran would accumulate for weapons.

The chapter on Iran’s missile capability provides an excellent insight into the many types of missiles and their sources. Indeed, the Iranians feel their missiles assure them credible deterrence, even when conventionally armed, and this has emboldened them to threaten to cripple the Strait of Hormuz or strike at Saudi Arabian oil facilities. Iran knows that it can exploit the price of oil as an asymmetric weapon for deterrence. The chapters on the Iranian military capability, the IRGC and asymmetric warfare well bring out this dimension.

At the political level, an interesting examination is available in the last two chapters that explore possible future scenarios that could emerge in Iran - rapprochement with the US, or a decision to carry out nuclear testing, or the possibility of a military strike on Iran. India must be prepared for all alternatives. While the chapters identify some options for India, these are inadequately fleshed out, leaving the reader looking for more.

Nearly all chapters of the book mention India’s dependence for oil on Iran, and it is a common recommendation that India should reduce this dependence by diversifying its energy sources. However, by looking at oil as the primary reason for India’s interest in Iran, the book appears one-dimensional. No mention (except by the Iranian author) is made of the value of Iran for India’s approach and access to Afghanistan, especially to counter any troublemaking by Pakistan after the 2014 exit of US troops, or for access to Central Asia. The role of Iran in stabilising Afghanistan will be of importance to India, and this should be conveyed to the US.

Another lacuna in the book is that it devotes little attention to the implications of the Iranian nuclear programme on the future of non-proliferation. While one of the chapters states that India would not face any direct security threat from a nuclear Iran, two deeper sets of questions are ignored. One, how would Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons impact the region? Would it increase pressure on some other countries to build a deterrent nuclear capability? Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are counted amongst the forerunners in this regard.

In 2006, several GCC countries had expressed a desire in nuclear energy programmes by way of a veiled threat to Iran. Saudi Arabia has increased its military procurement, expanded its civilian nuclear technology infrastructure, explored the possibility of setting up nuclear reactors, besides collaborating with Pakistan. This confrontation is part of a larger rivalry over pre-eminence in the Gulf, and encompasses the Shia - Sunni divide and the clash between Persian and Arab states. Is that good or bad for India? What are the prospects of a Middle East WMD Free Zone? These are some questions that a book whose subtitle reads “Reflections on Geopolitics” should have explored.

The second relevant question for India, which is only fleetingly addressed in the book, is how would a nuclear Iran behave? Would it become more aggressive against Israel and the US? Would it be prone to brandishing easy use of nuclear weapons? Would it join the ranks of Pakistan and the DPRK in following a policy of nuclear brinkmanship? Or, would it feel more secure and hence be less provocative? The book does not address these issues.

Neither does it explore the manner in which the Iranian nuclear issue lends itself to balance of power politics between US-China and US-Russia relations. Russia has been a provider of nuclear technology and advanced military equipment to Iran, and has shielded the country from harsh UNSC action because it is wary of the country becoming more fundamentalist, as sanctions weaken the pragmatists and empower more radical forces. China, too, has a special relationship with Iran. Though it has supported sanctions, and some Chinese firms have scaled back their energy development projects in the country, China’s economic growth remains indebted to Iranian oil and gas.

Of course, Beijing is looking to diversify its suppliers and Premier Wen did make a visit to Saudi Arabia (after 21 years), the UAE, and Qatar (for the first time ever) with this objective in mind in 2012. Yet, Russia and China perceive Iran as a powerful card to check US power not only in the Middle East, but also in other bilateral issues of discord. Russia, China, and Iran support each other on issues of vital national interest - Russia and Iran back China on Taiwan; China and Iran support Russia on Chechnya. For Russia and China it is important that Iran does not fall into the American sphere of influence. So, it makes for a complicated muddle here, and the Iranian nuclear programme becomes a player in these bilateral relations.

More analysis on geopolitics could have been included in the book. Despite this limitation, however, it makes a useful contribution especially from an Indian perspective - something that is in severe short supply. In fact, the book should be seen as the beginning of a more serious consideration of the future of Iran and the region by the Indian strategic community. Other scholars should pick up from the book to further provide considered policy inputs to the government.