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Iran Talks Shed Light On Nuclear Tensions Between India, Pakistan


One fear of Iran potentially developing a nuclear weapon is that it would lead to a regional nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Israel already has a nuclear arsenal, although it maintains a policy of neither confirming nor denying its existence. It's often said that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey might pursue nuclear weapons if their regional rivals in Iran had them. We thought we'd check in on a neighboring region where there has been a nuclear arms race, India and Pakistan. Neither country is signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both have nuclear weapons. Frank O'Donnell of King's College London has studied nuclear weapons in South Asia and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

FRANK O'DONNELL: Thank you. Glad to be here.

SIEGEL: And does the experience of India and Pakistan present any lessons for the Middle East and nuclear weapons?

O'DONNELL: I think it does. A lot of the analysis I read about the Iran talks will say that this could pave the way toward a realignment of the United States and the Middle East. This could bring Iran in from the cold. However, the Iran deal, if it goes forward, is just a technical agreement, and in India and Pakistan, there are similar technical agreements which are quite limited. One - both states will exchange a list on New Year's Day each year of the nuclear installations which is part of an agreement not to target each other's nuclear facilities. One is that they notify each other of any missile tests, and one is that the leadership and also the militaries have a hotline to each other.

The story with India and Pakistan is they still have growing nuclear arsenals. These limited technical agreements have not produced the kind of foundation for that broader relationship that some of the analysis talking about Iran seems to expect.

SIEGEL: What do you make of the argument that countries that acquire nuclear arsenals, even if they sound remarkably belligerent before that time, tend to behave fairly responsibly once they do have nuclear arsenals?

O'DONNELL: Well, I mean, to that I can only say look at the example of North Korea. You know, it's one of the most irresponsible states in the world. It's always making nuclear threats. If a state has nuclear weapons, that doesn't automatically guarantee a certain format of behavior.

SIEGEL: And the India-Pakistan conflict - I mean, do you think of it as one that actually has the potential of turning into a nuclear exchange anytime in the even distant future?

O'DONNELL: I don't see that getting to the level of a nuclear exchange. However, what concerns me is that there is not a sustainable, ongoing dialogue to reduce tensions between India and Pakistan. What has happened in recent years is that both sides adopt a tough stance and start escalating, and they both wait for the United States to come in and provide both of them the face-saving exercise that the United States will intervene and bring them both down. There are not mechanisms to de-escalate once a crisis emerges.


O'DONNELL: That is what I find most concerning about the situation there.

SIEGEL: That addressing the question of nuclear weapons can be a remarkably compartmentalized and technical development and really have no implications for a more peaceful relations between countries.

O'DONNELL: I think that India and Pakistan developed nuclear weapons out of both of their own sense of security threat. And for there to be some measures of reducing nuclear tensions, this has to be part of a broader political dialogue involving what both of their own threat perceptions are, and also, I argue, including China as well because China is very much part of the South Asian strategic environment. It's very much a player in the region.

SIEGEL: Do you see any parallels between Iran today and Pakistan and India at the point where they were intent on developing nuclear weapons?

O'DONNELL: The main parallel I see with Iran - up until really the Obama administration came in, the activities it was conducting up to that point seemed to me very reminiscent of what India was doing - the position it had up until it conducted testing in 1998. For a long period - say, from about the mid '80s and up until 1998, what India did was it had the capability. It had all the material. It had the knowledge. It had, you know, the missiles all sitting disassembled in its basement. By doing that, it meant that it would not be sanctioned as it was after 1998 for conducting the nuclear tests. However, it could in some ways behave like a nuclear-weapon state. It could throw its weight around a bit more. And I wonder if Iranians who are, you know, running the program did look at India's experience as a guide.

SIEGEL: Frank O'Donnell, thanks for talking with us.

O'DONNELL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Frank O'Donnell is a doctoral candidate in defense studies at King's College London and a research associate with the Center for Science and Security Studies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.