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1 November 2013, Gateway House

Book review: Iran from a new Indian perspective

In the absence of a debate in India on Iran’s nuclear programme, ‘Troubling Tehran' is a significant first attempt to go beyond Western narratives and ask pertinent questions

Fellow, International Security Studies Programme

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The recent thawing of relations between the United States and Iran has fuelled international hopes that an opportunity may have opened for a diplomatic resolution of Iran’s nuclear imbroglio, which has eluded a solution for more than a decade.

The divergence of interests between, on the one hand, the U.S. and Israel, which view Iran as a threat, and, on the other, Russia and China, which have given military-technical assistance to Iran, has so far ensured that a consensus cannot be evolved on the international approach to Iran’s nuclear programme. With its provocative refusal to allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities, Iran too has complicated the issue. Among other regional players in Iran’s neighbourhood, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, there has not been much public debate on the issue.

In India too, a robust debate on the Iran issue is largely absent. Before the imposition of international sanctions in 2006 against Iran, it was one of the largest suppliers of crude oil to India. Despite this, for most part, India’s policy formulations on a nuclear Iran have been ad hoc and made in response to events such as Iran’s missile tests. But Iran’s nuclear ambition remains intertwined not only with India’s energy security, but also with the evolving regional security situation in South-West Asia.

What does a nuclear Iran imply for India? What will be the impact on the regional balance of power if Iran acquires nuclear status? Should India follow the West’s position on Iran in terms of sanctions and a possible military option, or align itself with China and Russia, which have advocated a negotiated settlement? What are the implications for India of Iran-Pakistan relations, and of Iran’s converging interests with India on Afghanistan? What will be the fallout of a possible military confrontation over Iran for India? How should India secure its energy interests? What, in India’s view, will be the impact of a nuclear Iran on the nuclear non-proliferation regime?

On these aspects, there has not been sufficient debate among Indian security analysts and scholars. In fact, the contours of whatever debate there has been, have been shaped by western literature on the issue, which focuses on the repercussions of a nuclear Iran for western security interests.

In this context, Troubling Tehran, a compilation of papers by security experts, retired military officers, scientists, and former diplomats, edited by Arun Vishwanathan and Rajaram Nagappa of the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore, is a significant attempt to go beyond western narratives and give an Indian perspective.

The compilation covers a broad range, including Iran’s nuclear and missile capabilities, the impact of sanctions on Iran, and the implications for India’s energy security. In discussing these, the book examines many dimensions that have been under-explored in the western analyses on Iran. As Arun Vishwanathan points out, although Iran is believed to be developing a “break-out capability” – a final step towards nuclearisation, Iranian leaders have not yet reached a political decision to become a nuclear state. This sombre view of Iranian leadership is contrary to the western narrative.

While describing the impact of the 1979 Islamic revolution on Iran’s relations with the West, the editors recall that even as Iran, the U.S., and Israel publicly professed hostilities, covert cooperation between the three countries continued. This was evident when the U.S. sold arms to Iran during the U.S.’ Contragate operation in the 1980s, and during the joint effort by Iran and Israel to attack Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1979.

There has been a lot of debate within the West and in Israel about military strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations. However, proponents of the military option have not been able to evolve a consensus, primarily because Iranian nuclear installations are dispersed and Tehran has its own military capabilities. The book provides a technical analysis of Iran’s missile and asymmetric warfare capabilities. Rajaram Nagappa and S. Chandrashekar (of the NIAS) argue that utilising its strong science and technology base, Iran’s missile programme has primarily focused on controlling its area of immediate influence – the Strait of Hormuz.

Complementing this is Iran’s asymmetrical warfare capability – midget submarines, mine-laying vessels, and patrol boats that can carry out hit-and-run attacks. P. J. Jacob, former vice-admiral of the Indian Navy, writes that if Iran uses these capabilities during a conflict, it can inflict substantial economic damage on the West and its allies in the Strait of Hormuz. From the point of view of military strategy, Iran’s focus on acquiring asymmetric capabilities is significant, because most nations acquire asymmetric warfare capabilities only after acquiring nuclear deterrence, whereas Iran has done so even before acquiring nuclear status.

The book also discusses the efficacy of sanctions against Iran, and whether they can create enough domestic pressure to force Iran’s ruling regime to back off from the nuclear path, or if the sanctions will harden the regime’s resolve. Contributors to this volume have argued on both sides, but the perspective presented by Masoud Imani Kalesar, an Iranian journalist based in Paris, is especially interesting. He states that even if Iranians are united on the nuclear issue, they perceive the present regime, headed by Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei, as giving prominence to the sustenance of its ideology of the Islamic revolution over the interests of Iranians who have suffered due to the sanctions.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are tied to regional geopolitics and geo-economics – including the unrest in the Arab world, the situation in Syria, and the impact on the global energy trade. The book does not adequately discuss these regional linkages. It also lacks a comprehensive discussion on the domino-effect that a nuclear Iran could have in the region, or of India’s potential role in formulating a regional diplomatic solution.

Notwithstanding these gaps, this edited volume can be the beginning of an Indian debate on Iran’s nuclear programme. More such work is needed, which critically reflects on the consequences of Iran’s nuclear ambitions for India, for regional security, and for the international non-proliferation regime.

‘Troubling Tehran: Reflections on Geopolitics’ (2013) edited by Arun Vishwanathan and Rajaram Nagappa. New Delhi: Pentagon Press. 

Sameer Patil is Associate Fellow, National Security, Ethnic Conflict and Terrorism, at Gateway House.

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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