The Nuclear Jigsaw Linking Islamabad to Teheran

Article published on March 1, 2004
community published
Article published on March 1, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The conflict in Kashmir is not occurring in a vacuum. Pakistan has already polluted Iran. An analysis of what Europe has to do if it wants to protect its interests in the Middle East.

Pakistan has refused to sign the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and is in possession of a thriving nuclear weapons development programme - a programme which allowed Islamabad to explode its first atomic bomb in 1998. And which would not have succeeded without the technology and assistance of China’s Communist regime. Pakistani activity in the nuclear domain is increasing in South Asia’s political context, a context marked by the age-old rivalry between Islamabad and New Delhi for the control of the Jammu-I-Kashmir region.

David and Goliath

But the diffusion of nuclear technology in itself does not have to be negative. In the case of the Indian sub-continent, the possession of nuclear weapons can represent a stabilising factor in the region. The diffusion of nuclear weapons has guaranteed a prolonged period in which numerous political crises have never led to open conflict. The balance of terror also represents the most suitable base on which negotiations for a resolution to the deep causes of rivalry between the two countries can begin. Pakistan fears Indian hegemony in the region and is watching with great anxiety India’s unstoppable development in demographic, economic and technological terms. Islamabad is aware that it is unable to bear comparison with giant India. Already today India spends four times as much as Pakistan on defence– more than 66 billion dollars versus just 14. The sense of security that possession of nuclear weapons provides might allow Pakistan to reappraise the Indian threat so that a ‘desecuritisation’ of the conflict can occur. In other words, moving from a military agenda to a political confrontation.

Dangerous relationships (for Europe)

But if atomic activity can contribute to calming things down from a regional point of view, things become more complicated when the wider effects, which the European Union might find itself victim of via Teheran, are considered.

Recent declarations by Khan, the father of Pakistani atomic activity, have revealed a network of contacts between some sectors of the Pakistani army and the Iranian Government. Probably at the end of the 1990s, and unknown to the central Pakistani Government, technology was transferred to the regime in Teheran. Iran has signed the NPT but Western governments suspect that it has set up a nuclear programme with aggressive aims. The American State Department, for example, includes it as one of the countries which will obtain nuclear capabilities within the next ten to fifteen years. But what is encouraging Teheran’s proliferation? Certainly, for Iran the sudden fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime represents a notable improvement in terms of its own geopolitical position. But threats remain high on other fronts – most crucially, the presence of the United States in Iraq and the Persian Golf, and Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

But does Iran’s nuclear development represent a threat to European security? From a strictly military point of view, the answer is no - for now. To be a threat it is not enough to possess nuclear weapons. You also need the carriers to transport them. And Iran’s missile arsenal can at most be a threat on a regional level. Iran cannot strike any Member State of the European Union. In reality, the focus of Iran’s nuclear and missile policy is essentially regional. It is a preventative and defensive policy rather than an aggressive one.

The significance of Israel

Nevertheless, the transfer of technology between Pakistan and Iran represents a setback for the international non-proliferation system. Technological leaks represent a threat, even if indirect, to European security. The NPT is a cornerstone of foreign policy in all Member States. However, the inadequacy of an exclusively repressive policy, true of this Treaty, cannot be avoided, especially in the case of a Middle Eastern geopolitical sector which is extremely intricate and, above all, interdependent.

In this framework, it is not reasonable to ask Iran to break off its nuclear research programme without also putting pressure on Israel to get rid of its arsenal. The situation is similar, if on a smaller scale, to the strategic interaction between the two Superpowers during the Cold War. It would have been absurd to ask Russia to get rid of or reduce its arsenal without making the same request to the United States.

Instead, European policy with regard to the non-proliferation problem mainly takes the approach of sanctioning in the short term. It reduces itself to looking to prevent the development of military nuclear capacities in the immediate future. It doesn’t bother to ask itself instead about the reasons why a State invests billions of Euros in nuclear research projects and infrastructure. In this sense, the recent trip by Foreign Ministers from Germany, France and the UK (in October 2003) to Iran was the latest example of the myopia of the EU’s nuclear policy.

This policy lacks a more wide-ranging vision. Brussels should press for a thaw in relations between the US and Iran, and then reinforce its own presence in the Middle East peace process. A more secure international environment would allow the Iranian leaders to abandon their development of atomic activity, not because of pressure by Western States, but because the reasons for such development will be lessened.

But this is not enough. The EU must envisage a vision spanning the entirety of crises in the Middle East, a region high in conflict, which extends from the Atlantic to the Bengali jungle. The quakes that occur in one corner reverberate right across this area without a solution of continuity. It is vitally important then that the EU understands why a ‘denuclearisation’ policy for Iran is not possible without creating a nation-building policy in Pakistan at the same time. Developing the level of management of the Pakistani State will better favour control of those grey areas of State administration which allowed the clandestine diffusion of nuclear technology. Coasting cannot be a policy for the Middle East. European foreign policy must be led by a real multi-dimensional approach to security.