New Leaders Forum

Nuclear Iran Good for India?

A nuclear Iran is looking like a growing possibility. Could this actually be a strategic asset for India?

By Yogesh Joshi for

India has consistently maintained that a nuclear Iran isn’t in New Delhi’s interests, for a number of reasons.

One reason is that India, having been accepted as a de-facto nuclear power after the signing of the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear agreement, perceives any further proliferation in nuclear weapons as against both its own interests, and those of the wider non-proliferation regime of which it is now an active member. 

Second, if Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, India will find itself in a diplomatic bind with the United States, Israel and Gulf countries as it has strong relations with Iran. In addition, a nuclear Iran would become of increasing strategic interest to India’s regional rival, China.  And, while India would undoubtedly be constrained by expectations from Tel Aviv and Washington, Beijing could find ample diplomatic space to cut deals with the beleaguered Iranian regime.

It’s likely with all these issues in mind that India has largely supported the international community against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Since 2006, India has voted in favor of sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council on Iran in order to halt its weapons program and to pressure Tehran to help the International Atomic Energy Agency with its investigations.

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However, India’s own nuclear history demonstrates that a determined nuclear proliferator can hardly be stopped by sanctions. The more hardship the Iranian nuclear program goes through, the more convinced the country’s leaders become that it needs to be a nuclear power. And, given the IAEA’s recent report on the progress of Iran’s nuclear program, it’s not hard to imagine that a new state will soon join the global club of nuclear powers.

From Tehran’s point of view, there’s probably a very clear lesson from the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya: nuclear weapons save authoritarian states from regime change. With Iran increasingly determined to hold onto its nuclear options, the question for India is whether a nuclear Iran can be harnessed to its strategic benefit?

As far as Pakistan is concerned, then a nuclear Iran might actually benefit India strategically. Sunni-dominated Pakistan and Shia-led Iran don’t always see eye to eye, and a nuclear Iran would mean Pakistan was flanked by nuclear powers. Pakistan has also traditionally been aligned with Saudi Arabia, while Pakistan’s support of the Taliban has ruffled feathers some feathers in Tehran. All this suggests that Pakistan may feel more constrained by a new nuclear-armed neighbor.

But a nuclear Iran not only helps constrain Pakistan, but would also open diplomatic space for India in the Middle East. For a start, it would force Israel and to negotiate “nuclear red lines.” Second, with U.S. efforts at preventing Iran acquiring nuclear arms having failed, a new round of diplomacy would ensue on dealing with a nuclear Iran.

India, which maintains good relations not just with the United States, but also Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia, could play a key role in both scenarios. India would get an opportunity to demonstrate its diplomatic skills, while its geographic detachment from the region makes it appear a more impartial mediator.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Iran’s steady progress towards a nuclear weapons capability won’t be halted by economic sanctions alone – India’s own experience is testament to this fact. Given Iran’s ambitions, then, it might be prudent for New Delhi to start planning for a world in which Iran possesses nuclear weapons. 

Yogesh Joshi an M.Phil candidate at the Center for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.