Amidst the ominous discussions on proliferation that surrounded U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to India earlier this month, most people could be forgiven for having missed a simple fact: Iran is not making a nuclear bomb.

The level of unanimity on this question is surprising. Leon Panetta, the U.S. Defence Secretary, testified to the U.S. Congress in February that “the intelligence has been very clear … [it] does not show that they have made a decision to proceed with developing a nuclear weapon.” At the end of April, Israel's serving military chief publicly concurred with this. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has issued a fatwa declaring that “the production … and use of nuclear weapons are … forbidden in Islam” and has reiterated this position in several public statements.

Right to enrich

The Iran conflict is more subtle and has to do with a technology called enrichment. Nuclear reactors use a form of uranium called uranium-235. Naturally occurring uranium is dominated by another form called uranium-238. The process of increasing the proportion of uranium-235 in a natural mixture is called enrichment. This is commonly done in centrifuges, which use the same physical principle as washing machines to separate these components. Several countries have enrichment facilities, including India that operates one near Mysore.

The catch is that the same centrifuges can technically be used to enrich uranium to a point where it becomes suitable for a weapon. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) grants its signatories the right to use enrichment in civilian settings, but gives only five countries the right to military applications. To implement this, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) closely monitors civilian nuclear complexes.

Even though Iran is in substantive compliance with the NPT, and the IAEA has detected no diversion of nuclear material, the U.S. has decided that Iran must halt its enrichment programme. It pressured the U.N. Security Council into passing multiple resolutions on this, which Iran ignored, declaring that it had a right, under the NPT, to use enrichment for civilian purposes. This is what has led to the current stand-off.

Unverified evidence

The American demand is based on the allegation that Iran conducted studies on weaponisation before 2003. The only evidence they have offered in support are electronic files that they claim to have gleaned from a laptop, which, they say, was smuggled out of Iran by a source.

In the absence of independent corroboration, the previous head of the IAEA, Mohamad ElBaradei, was sceptical. In his recent memoir, he says that “a typical reaction that was echoed by multiple nuclear experts” was that “I can fabricate that data.” However, under its current head, Yukiya Amano, the IAEA changed tracks and declared in a November 2011 report — with no further material evidence — that the American information was “credible.”

This should be viewed in the light of cables — disclosed by WikiLeaks—from the U.S. mission in Vienna. One of these, titled “IAEA Leadership Team Transition and U.S. influence,” described Mr. Amano's ascent to the helm of the IAEA as a “once-a-decade opportunity.” A later cable revealed that “Amano reminded [the] Ambassador … that he was solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision … [including] Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program.”

Hans Blix, another former chief of the IAEA, warned Mr. Amano that “the agency should not risk its own credibility by relying on data that it cannot verify fully.” The IAEA's willingness to accept unverified U.S. intelligence is particularly strange given recent history. In 2002, British and American intelligence agencies alleged that Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger. George Bush used this as a justification for the war in his 2003 “State of the Union” address. It was later found that these allegations were based on crude forgeries.

Deal scuttled

The history of the Iraq conflict is also useful for understanding another aspect of the current stand-off. In the late 1990s, the U.N. dispatched teams to examine Iraq's nuclear and chemical weapons programmes. It now seems clear that these teams were infiltrated by American spies, who used this opportunity to gather information on Iraq's conventional military capabilities. So, Iran has been understandably circumspect about giving the IAEA a free rein and has baulked at granting it access to non-nuclear facilities such as the Parchin military complex. The assassination of several Iranian scientists, presumably by Israeli agents, after their role in the nuclear programme was revealed to the IAEA, has only reinforced these concerns.

The American attitude towards negotiations has been revealing. Earlier this week, while Mr. Amano was in Teheran on a rare visit and two days ahead of major negotiations, the U.S. Senate tightened its sanctions on Iran. This is part of a pattern. In 2009, then Brazilian President, Lula da Silva, mediated a major deal, in which Iran agreed to relinquish control over a large part of its uranium stockpile, in return for help with its research reactor in Tehran. This was precisely what U.S. President Barack Obama had earlier demanded from Mr. Lula, in a leaked letter. However, one day after Iran agreed, the U.S. rejected the deal and announced a fresh round of sanctions! Mr. ElBaradei, who viewed these tortuous negotiations at close quarters, summarised this by writing that “nothing would satisfy, short of Iran coming to the table completely undressed.”

About hegemony

Neither Israel — the most belligerent state in the region — with hundreds of nuclear weapons, nor the U.S. with thousands can expect to be taken seriously when they claim that Iran threatens their security. However, Iran does threaten their hegemony in West Asia. So, Iran's nuclear programme has become a pretext to pressurise a recalcitrant regime. The concomitant demonisation of Iran in the popular media, including an Orientalist debate on whether Iran is a “rational actor,” is part of a push towards an ultimate objective of “regime-change.”

Unfortunately, the discourse in India has been defined by short-term realist considerations including the country's immediate business interests and oil needs. However, India's long-term interests are crucially reliant on the principle that is at stake here: is the international system based on the equity of nations, or is international law a tool that powerful states can use to impose their will on others?

(Suvrat Raju is a theoretical physicist at the Harish-Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad.)

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