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India, Iran, and the case for double standards

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
May 14, 2006
Project Syndicate

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All but lost in the controversies surrounding Iraq and Iran is a major initiative involving a third “I” country: India. Sometime this year, the United States Congress is likely to vote on the “US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative”, signed when President Bush visited New Delhi in March.

The agreement paves the way for American exports of nuclear technologies and materials for use in India’s civilian nuclear programme. In return, India has pledged to open 14 of its 22 existing and planned nuclear power reactors, as well as all future civil reactors, to international inspection.

The agreement matters for at least two reasons. First, the accord symbolises the arrival of a new geopolitical relationship between the world’s two largest democracies that were often on opposite sides during the Cold War. This development may be of historic importance if it not only leads to a deepening of US-Indian technical and economic ties, but also strengthens their ability to tackle regional and global challenges, ranging from the proliferation of nuclear weapons to climate change.

But the proposed US-India accord is attracting notice for a second, and far more controversial, reason: concern that it could weaken, rather than advance, efforts to resist the further worldwide spread of nuclear weapons. Critics charge that the agreement undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by letting India have its cake (nuclear weapons) and eat it, too (by giving it access to nuclear fuel and technology). They allege that the agreement creates a double standard, according to which only some countries may possess nuclear weapons.

To be fair, the critics are right, at least in part. There is a double standard at work. But there is nothing new about that. The NPT, some four decades old, is based on a double standard that gives only five countries—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the US—the right (for how long is not defined) to possess nuclear weapons.

Moreover, the world seems to have learnt to tolerate the reality that three other countries—Israel, India, and Pakistan—also possess nuclear weapons. Where the critics of the proposed US-India accord are wrong is in charging that such a double standard is wrong when it comes to India because it opens the way for countries such as North Korea and Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Not all countries are equal. India is a democracy. Transparency and the rule of law are the norm, and its government does all it can to fight terrorism. There is no reason to believe that India will promote the spread of nuclear fuel, technology, or weapons to any other party or country; on the contrary, it is committed to preventing this.

This is not true of either North Korea or Iran. The former is arguably the most closed, tyrannical, and militarised society in the world, with a long record of irresponsible exports of dangerous technologies. Iran offers official support to terrorists and its president has threatened publicly to destroy Israel. The world has good reason to be far less tolerant of what North Korea or Iran do in the realm of nuclear weapons and to reject their calls for equal treatment with India.

Indeed, if there is a danger in the proposed US-India accord, it is the possibility that either North Korea or Iran might conclude that it is only a matter of time before the world comes to accept their nuclear status. Here the US and others must disabuse them.

The message seems to have gotten through to North Korea; we have seen no nuclear weapons test, despite its probable ability to so. China, the transit route for most of what enters and leaves North Korea, understands that were North Korea to cross this red line, it would risk US military reprisal and possibly lead Japan and/or South Korea to rethink their nuclear weapons policy. None of these outcomes is in China’s strategic interest.

Unfortunately, there is no country in a position to influence Iran to the extent that China can influence North Korea. The situation is made more difficult by the fact that oil prices are already at a record high, while US ground forces are busy in Iraq, thus reducing the credibility of American military threats to Iran.

Iran’s leaders, though, would be unwise to proceed with an unconstrained nuclear programme and discount the possibility of US military action. This said, a US preventive strike at Iran’s nuclear-related installations is not in the interest of either country. The potential for loss of life, for Iranian retaliation, and for global economic disruption is high.

Both countries—indeed, the world—would be better served by a diplomatic outcome in which Iran accepted severe limits on any independent uranium enrichment activity it could undertake and agreed to place all of its nuclear-related facilities under highly intrusive international inspection in exchange for economic benefits and security assurances. Better yet would be if Iran turned to Russia or the IAEA for uranium-generated electrical power. Direct US-Iran talks should be convened if they are required to bring about any such agreement.

Iran’s calculations will not be affected by what happens between the US and India. Rather, Iranian policy will be shaped by its domestic politics, by the ability of the international community to present a united front, and by the willingness of the US to put forth a reasonable diplomatic offer against the backdrop of sanctions and potential military strikes should diplomacy fail. The stakes could hardly be greater. It is Iran, not India, that we should all be worried about.

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