Posted by: John Elliott | December 3, 2007

Iran nuclear crisis puts Delhi and Mumbai at risk

A session on global risks at the annual Delhi conference of the World Economic Forum (WEF) was jolted out of a discussion on demography and health this morning when Robert Blackwill, a former US ambassador to India, warned that the country’s economic growth could be derailed by a looming crisis over Iran’s nuclear weaponry.


Delhi and Mumbai could become targets for a nuclear attack, he said.


“I’m not forecasting a war but we are going down that river by about four knots,” declared Blackwill, who became deputy national security adviser to Condoleezza Rice after he gave up his ambassador’s post in India in 2003. He now works as a consultant and is president of Barbour Griffiths and Rogers in Washington.


Speaking before news emerged in Washington that intelligence agencies now suggest Iran may have halted its nuclear weapons as early as 2003, he said that a U.S. attack would lead to “a long war……alienate the Islamic world…… and increase terrorism globally.” On the other hand, if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, it would “change the world.” Other Sunni states would acquire weapons and India would be “a prime target,” with the “risk of nuclear attacks on Delhi and Mumbai.”


India has of course been building up its own nuclear capability for 30 years, because it feels vulnerable in the long-term to a nuclear attack from China, and maybe in the shorter term from Pakistan. But Blackwill’s warning significantly widened the risk into the unknown.


“Within the next year or two, this president (of the United States) or the next president might face a decision to attack Iran’s military and nuclear facilities, with disastrous results, or acquiesce in Iran becoming a nuclear state,” he told the conference.

Later he said to me that there would be a “binary choice for the president to pull the trigger or acquiesce” in Iran’s nuclear arms capability, unless sanctions become “much stronger.”

That apocalyptic analysis from a former diplomat, who is well known in India for speaking his mind, usually in support of the country and its future, silenced most commentators at the conference. But Shamsher Mehta, director general of the Confederation of Indian Industry, said he would look differently at what was often regarded as a “clash of civilizations.”

Hinting that the United States and other western powers should handle Iran differently, he said that “India represents an opportunity for a confluence of civilizations”.

Mehta, who is a retired army general, was reflecting the fact that India does not want a possible nuclear energy deal that it is considering with the United States, to force it to give up decades of friendly relations with Iran. It also wants to complete an agreement with Iran on a gas pipeline, which the United States opposes.

Blackwill introduced the Iran issue by pointing out that India’s annual economic growth rate of 8-9% was vulnerable to the risk of rising oil prices. He referred to an Asian Development Bank report, which said that for every US$10 hike in oil prices, India’s growth rate would be cut by 1%. So if oil were to hit US$150 per barrel, India’s growth could plummet to a “disastrous” 3-4%.

He was speaking at a conference session on six areas of risk to India’s economic future. Apart from the Iran and oil, the most serious risks were linked with India’s large population and health prospects. A report at the conference pointed out that, while India had 18% of the world’s population, it had only 4% of its water resources – with deteriorating ground water supply systems and dangerously polluted rivers. HIV and AIDS plus tuberculosis killed large numbers of people, and malaria was more prevalent than in neighboring Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

For India, the difference between these health risks and the Iran risk is that it could do a lot on its own to improve water supplies and reduce the growth of killer diseases. But it is nowhere near doing enough, mainly because of corrupt fractured governance with responsibilities split between Delhi and individual states.

On Iran, it could also do a lot to temper growing aggression in the US, acting as an intermediary between Iran and the West and aiming at Mehta’s “confluence of civilizations.” Till now however, India has failed to rise to such diplomatic challenges, partly because it has neither the self confidence to speak out internationally, nor the diplomatic skills to mediate.

Critics in India who fear that the proposed nuclear deal would make the country a client state of the United States, would have less to worry about if India became visibly involved in Blackwill’s looming crisis and insisted that it should stay close to Iran in the next crucial year or two, as well as striking deals with the United States. The question is whether India could master such “confluence.”


  1. “Riding the Elephant”, how about “Caging the Eagle” or “Shutting up the Parrot?” (Read UK) and solving a lot of problems at once. I am an Indian, by the way, and do strongly support and admire American ideologies and British traditions, however, on the foreign policy front, our self proclaimed birds or prey are, to say the least, silly- on one hand they call Pakistan (a nuclear tech Wal-Mart) its closest ally and on the other, threaten to bomb Iran: that is yet to develop nuclear weapons, let alone, pass the know how; Logic would suggest, Indian and Iranian relations should be leveraged in order to settle the dispute- instead, India is being coaxed into aligning completely with the US to counter the rice eating chicom’s; while they are “harmoniously rising” and selling everything conceivable at 1/4th the price… Logic often defies logic and that makes the world a beautiful place, cheers.

  2. i support president bush’s policy on iran.radical islam is the biggest threat facing the world.

    there is a big question mark against india’s politicians.india was conquered by britain and muslim invaders,partly because of superior western military technology but also largely because of lack of character of it’s leaders.

    the latter is playing itself out even today. the indian people expect india’s leaders to resolve india’s energy problems while ensuring the security of it’s 1 billion or more people in the most nuclearized part of the world where India has fought border wars with both Pakistan and China in the last 50 years. Instead, the Communist Party and BJP(which should be on the US terror list like the Iranian Revolutionary Gaurd really for murdering,raping and looting civilians), are squabbling in the most pathetic and petty manner,solving none of India’s or the world’s problems.

    I was strongly opposed to the Iraq invasion, but would support a strike on Iran if the evidence that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear bomb is foolproof.

    Iran’s nuclear program is similar to India’s. India said it’s nuclear program was peaceful in 1974, then went on to develop nuclear bombs. Iran is on the same track now.

  3. Either Blackwill is too dumb or pretends to be dumb. For 30 years American Diplomats were politely told in New Delhi that India can not give up nuclear weapons not because of Pakistan or China (eventhough they were a factor) but explicit threat of US using nuclear weapons against India especially Calcutta(using 7th Fleet during India pakistan war for liberation of Bangladesh).
    So much for intelligence of US diplomats that they think they have achieved some thing big in India nuclear deal by introducing Hyde Act prohibiting nuclear testing in nuclear cooperation act. Most likely the agreement will be rejected in Indian parliament causing further rancour in India US relations. One more cause of concern. Pentagon complains that they donot have contact with a generation of Pakistani military leaders. But I have never heard US politicians complaining about not having contact with a politician governing state of Gujarat and perhaps future Indian prime minister

  4. Re: Blackwill, the threat from Iran–After what the US security agencies have revealed–that Iran stopped work on developing nuclear weapons, can we please get a little less sabre-rattling and some sense out of the US? Does the US establishment imagine that fighting an almost losing war on three fronts–Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan–will help it make friends and influence people in the Middle East and the rest of Asia? What it will do is tie down US and European forces in endless guerilla warfare. Reminds me of the Emperor Aurangzeb, who in his last years, was at war with the Marathas under Shivaji’s son Rajaram, the Sikhs under Guru Gobind Singh and the Rajputs, not to mention the Jats and Satnamis. Does the US establishment want to emulate India’s last Great Mughal?

  5. More evidence that this current crop of “diplomats” do not understand most of the geopolitical implications of what they are saying. The depth of Blackwill’s ignorance is staggering. First, India is a Sunni nation itself; it has more Sunnis than almost any other country in the world. Secondly, Iran has no desire to give any nuclear technology it has to any other Sunni nation: a significant reason that Iran WANTS nuclear technology in the first place is so that it can achieve military parity or superiority over the Gulf Sunni nations. Thirdly, it is absolutely not in India’s best interests to get involved in the bickering between Iran, the Sunni nations and the US. It is a neutral third party, and its best interests are to sell and buy from everyone. That is what is going to develop India’s economy. Fourthly, the good relations between India and the gulf states can potentially help serve as an economic cushion against rising oil prices. Fifthly, the only reason for referring to a growth rate of 3-4% as “disastrous” is because Mr. Blackwill felt a compunction to use the word “disaster.” If a growth rate of 3-4% is disastrous, then the US has been suffering a disaster for a long time. How does he propose we get out of it?

  6. Hey what about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons targetting all Indian cities? Wonder if Robert Blackwill also used Power Point slides like the ones used by Colin Powell to fool UN

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