As negotiations continue over Iran’s nuclear programme with threats and pleas being swapped in a global relay race, President George W. Bush travelled to India with a completely different geopolitical message. Prima facie it might seem to the casual observer that the world suddenly leapt another mile down the path of inconsistency. At the centre of the argument lies the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970.
Most countries of the world are party to the treaty (187 out of 192) and the most notable absentees are Israel, Pakistan and India, of which the latter two are confirmed nuclear powers and the first is widely believed to be. Non-proliferation and disarmament are two of the pillars of the NPT; the third is the safeguarded use of nuclear technology for peaceful energy means. The wording of this third pillar in two articles gives rise to varying interpretations. It guarantees the “inalienable right” of states to use and develop nuclear technology for peaceful energy means, as long as it doesn’t involve the manufacture of nuclear weapons. It also requires non-nuclear weapon states to accept safeguards under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons.” These safeguards usually take the form of regular inspections of nuclear-related sites.
This is the heart of the issue between Iran and the IAEA, with Iran claiming it has the right to develop a nuclear programme as long as it is peaceful. The IAEA has never declared Iran to be in violation of the NPT, but matters were complicated in 2002 with the discovery of several clandestine nuclear facilities. This is what gives rise to suspicions that Iran is intending to develop nuclear weapons. However, countries like Israel have committed themselves to take unilateral action to prevent any form of potential for nuclear weapons arising. This in turn gives a rationale for keeping nuclear programmes secret, as Iran realises countries like the USA or Israel are disposed to suspect it.
The issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear ambitions are not confined to worries concerning the NPT. This is illustrated by the deal reached in early March 2006 between India and the USA regarding nuclear cooperation. It entails India splitting its nuclear programme into a civilian and a military component and allowing the IAEA to inspect its civilian facilities. In return, the USA will provide civilian technology to India, in effect signalling a definitive end to its isolation in the nuclear scene. However, it is feared that this means a tacit acknowledgement of India as the world’s sixth nuclear power, something that could plausibly strengthen the Indian bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and that this deal will hollow out the NPT.
The world thus risks a further erosion of international relations. Labelled a ‘crisis’ in Iran and a ‘landmark achievement’ in India, how the situation develops will depend largely on the actions of China. Traditionally, China has been opposed to Security Council action against Iran, and the energy hungry nation buys a lot of gas and oil from Iran. This opposition may fuel the efforts of diplomatic solutions, but it may also provoke military actions from a frustrated Israel fearing its very existence. China also insists that any Indian nuclear activities be brought within the auspices of the NPT, which would of course mean total unilateral disarmament for India. If Beijing decides to interpret India as an emerging rival this might lead to geopolitical alliances destabilising the already fragile region marred by tensions in Kashmir and civil war in Nepal.
What is clear is that whatever solutions are reached, these will largely be geopolitically determined, with trade and energy policies being key determinants unfortunately, as these are unlikely to be conducive to strengthening the authority of the NPT and this treaty is still the best protection against global nuclear armament.