It is a worrisome possibility. Imagine Mulayam Singh Yadav as prime minister of India, heading a Third Front government last week, on the day the International Atomic Energy Agency was taking its vote on reporting Iran's nuclear programme to the United Nations security council. Or picture a return to the national security nightmare of an I.K. Gujral prime ministership that the country went through in 1997. Last Saturday, Sheel Kant Sharma, India's permanent representative to the UN organizations in Vienna, would have found himself in the undistinguished company of IAEA governors from Belarus, Libya and South Africa, the last a country that often acts as a cat's paw for the white man even though it is now ruled by its majority black people.
These were some of the governments that chose to abstain from voting on the IAEA resolution, which the Manmohan Singh government sensibly supported, along with Brazil, Canada, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Yemen and, of course, Russia and China. Even Mulayam Singh and Gujral would not have gone so far as to take India to the brink of being an outcast from the international community by voting against reporting to the security council that the IAEA 'is not yet in a position to clarify some important issues relating to Iran's nuclear program or to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran'.
But being in the company of Algeria, Belarus or Libya would have been bad enough for New Delhi, which seeks to be equated with the major powers in the 21st century and wants to be acknowledged as a candidate for permanent membership of the security council. There was much more at stake in the vote in Vienna than the Indo-US nuclear deal or the concerns on Capitol Hill about India's activities in the upper Persian Gulf. An abstention or a 'No' vote would have deeply dented the huge reservoir of credibility, which New Delhi has built up as a declared weapons state between the Pokhran-II nuclear tests nearly eight years ago and now. Pakistan's chief nuclear black marketeer, A.Q. Khan, would then have had the last laugh that by a single irrational act, India had equated itself with his country and subjected itself to the demands of accountability on nuclear issues similar to those that General Pervez Musharraf is faced with.
No one knows this better than the prime minister, Manmohan Singh. As finance minister in P.V. Narasimha Rao's government, Singh had vehemently opposed the idea of exercising the nuclear option, lest it undid at one go all the work that he had done as finance minister after inheriting an almost empty treasury and abysmally low reserves of foreign exchange in 1991. Singh's view that the country had not yet become strong enough economically to take on the world was a major input that finally persuaded Rao to put off a nuclear test in 1995.
Being a nuclear weapons state involves certain responsibilities and commitments. Being a permanent member of the UN Security Council also involves certain responsibilities and commitments. By voting with the leading members of the international community in Vienna last weekend, India has lived up to its responsibilities as a declared nuclear weapons power. Because the decision on its vote in Vienna had to be taken in stealth, because the left parties made a circus of decision-making on a vital issue of global interest, India has forfeited ' at least for the time being ' its claim to be a responsible permanent member of the security council.
As it is, the security council has enough on its plate. The UN's most vital organ can do without the additional worry of a new, potentially procrastinating permanent member like India, which is currently incapable of taking decisions on the issues that come up before the council without the contretemps that we saw over Iran between last September and now.
But the prime minister should have no illusions that his headaches over Iran are by any means over, now that the IAEA has passed the much-discussed resolution on getting the issue before the security council. Singh's problems with the left over this matter could come to a head sooner rather than later. Malaysia's permanent representative to the UN in Vienna, Rajmah Hussain, is on record that before the security council can take any major steps to deal with Tehran, a third vote by the IAEA board of governors is necessary. That can come as early as March 6, when the IAEA's director-general, Mohamed El Baradei, is to submit a status report to the board on Iran's nuclear programme.
For Singh and his government, Iran's nuclear programme and its repercussions are far more serious than South Block is willing to admit in public. According to accounts circulating on Raisina Hill, the national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan had received intelligence reports and diplomatic cables from Indian missions abroad that spoke of a planned Israeli attack either on Iran's uranium enrichment facility at Natanz or its uranium conversion plant at Isfahan.
Narayanan, according to these accounts, briefed the prime minister. At least one such intelligence report and a cable even mentioned that November 7 last year was picked as the date for an Israeli air attack, which was put off after the Russians drew the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad back into negotiations. Any Israeli attack on an Iranian nuclear facility would have devastating consequences for four million Indians in the lower Gulf states. Collateral damage from such an attack could reach south Asia, certainly northern and western India.
Then there is the controversy, which is already raging in Vienna, and at the UN headquarters in New York, over the wording of the resolution, which the IAEA's governors passed last Saturday. The Russians and the Chinese believe Saturday's resolution merely mandates informing the security council about what is going on in Iran, that a report will be given to the council without creating a situation where Tehran is hauled up before the council and a procedure is started by which the council is required to take action. Indeed, this view, conveyed to Indian diplomats by some of the big powers, which agreed in London before the IAEA meeting on the broad framework of Saturday's resolution, was a major factor that swung Indian support for the US and European positions at the meeting of the board of governors.
In London, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, also took this view. On January 31, Blair told an interviewer that 'the fact that it [Iran's nuclear programme] is reported rather than referred [to the Security Council] simply means that the atomic energy authority will continue to be involved.' Blair qualified that by adding, 'This distinction between reporting and referral, believe me that is not the important thing, the important thing is that the UN security council are now seized of it, they will discuss it and they will decide upon it.'
The Americans are, however, taking an entirely different view. John Bolton, the US permanent representative to the UN in New York, said in response to questions from reporters about the distinction between 'reporting' and 'referral' that 'there is no difference'The language used in earlier IAEA resolutions on North Korea, for example, used the word report. So the word report is what the IAEA does. I, and everybody else who has addressed this question, have also used the word referral effectively interchangeably with the word report. The operative word really is report, but they mean the same thing'So, the notion that there is a difference between a referral and a report has never been accurate.'
It is a hard choice that South Block and the prime minister's office will have to make when the next meeting of the IAEA board of governors takes place and the issue moves beyond Vienna, on to New York. For the left parties, that leaves their task clearly cut out. For them, the war in New Delhi on Iran is by no means over, although they may have lost two battles so far.