A tale of two deals
The finalisation of the P-5+1-Iran nuclear deal coincided with the tenth anniversary of the India-U.S. nuclear deal by sheer chance. But the two deals, which came ten years apart, reveal American strategy to deal with nuclear proliferation in two distinct situations and two different times. The U.S. appeared to make concessions in both cases, but the deals served their immediate strategic interests.
The objective was to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle in both cases, though it looked positive in the case of India and negative in the case of Iran. The U.S. was alarmed by the weapon tests of India in 1998 even more than the revelation in 2002 of Iran’s nuclear activities. Imposition of sanctions against India and Iran were swift and severe, once it became clear that India would not sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and Iran would not abandon enrichment.
The position of strength the U.S. had in both cases derived from the crippling sanctions that India and Iran feared, though in the case of India, the sanctions had disappeared for extraneous reasons even before the negotiations on the deal began. The sanctions were, however, hanging over the head of Jaswant Singh when he negotiated with Strobe Talbott for two years, which actually led to the India-U.S. nuclear deal. Of course, Jaswant Singh pretended that sanctions were not an issue, but Talbott was very specific about the benchmarks to be reached for sanctions to be lifted. Had 26/11 not intervened, sanctions would have been the central issue of the India-U.S. nuclear deal also.
Sitting next to the Iranian Ambassador in the Board of Governors in the early stages of the Iran issue at the IAEA from 2002 to 2004, this writer was aware that Iran’s aspiration was to acquire the status of pre-1998 India. That was the time when India had an ambivalent position on its nuclear capability, with the option of weaponisation. Iran was aware that the major difference between the two countries was that India was not a signatory to the NPT, but expected that it could make up for it by hide-and- seek. Iran expressed readiness to allow inspection of their facilities, but each time the inspectors came back with more questions than answers. The IAEA concluded that there was “something rotten in the state of Denmark” but could not locate the source of the stench.
Iran realized that the game was up when the matter went to the UN Security Council, with the support of India, which was in the middle of the negotiations for its own deal with the United States. Though the Indian vote was in keeping with the position that India had taken since 2002, it was believed that the Indian vote was cast at the instance of the United States. The subsequent massive sanctions and the dire situation of the Iranian economy forced Iran to take the bitter medicine of curtailing its nuclear activities to revitalize its economy.
In the case of India, the negotiations were between two countries, which had a long history of engagement, though occasionally estranged. The George W. Bush Administration was merely taking the “next steps” in a strategic partnership established by the Clinton Administration. In the case of Iran, it was a matter of breaking the ice and proceeding to negotiate a deal, which was hard for a proud nation to swallow. The trust deficit was so great that every detail had to be worked out with sufficient safeguards.
In the case of India, the U.S. was confident enough to accept the reality of its nuclear capability and seek limitations only in the future development of nuclear weapons. In the case of Iran, the effort was to halt and roll back the capability that Iran could acquire.
Ten years down the line, the India-U.S. nuclear deal looks like a major concession to India, without any concomitant benefits to the U.S. But at the time of the negotiations, there were multiple levels of political dialogue at the levels of Governments, the U.S. Congress and the members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, all aimed at tying India in knots. The Hyde Act appeared to circumscribe not only India’s nuclear ambitions, but also its foreign policy itself. But today, India remains unaffected by the political restraints imposed on it. Even after problems arose in nuclear trade between the U.S. and India, there is little acrimony between them on the provisions of the deal. The deal liberated India from the shackles of being a non-signatory of the NPT.
In a sense, the deal has liberated Iran from the threats of war and crippling sanctions, without having to abandon its nuclear programme altogether. It is more transformational to the region and the world than the India deal. Iran’s new economic freedom and consequential prosperity will propel it to the forefront of the region, posing a challenge to Saudi Arabia and others. It may even become a partner of the United States and others in their battle against the Islamic State. The Iran deal marked a new beginning in Iran-U.S. relations, while the India deal was a culmination of a process of rapproachment.
The nuclear opening that India gained by the U.S.-India deal fell short of expectations because of the Civil Nuclear Liability Law and the Fukushima disaster, but it played a role in the emergence of India as an economic power. In the case of Iran, the deal will be more transformational for the country and game changing for the world.