External Affairs

What America’s Nuclear Deals with India and Iran have in Common

The contents of the agreements are very different but in both cases, Washington was driven by concerns about strategic shifts occurring in the wider regions of South Asia and the Middle East


Photo By Abdolreza Mohseni

It may be a mere coincidence that Washington and its partners operating as the P5+1 were able to strike a nuclear deal with Iran exactly 10 years after the US and India issued their landmark join statement on civil nuclear cooperation in July 2005. In terms of their contents and scope, the two agreements couldn’t be more different. Yet, they also make for an interesting comparative study.

When the George W Bush administration announced its intention of changing its laws and pushing for an India-specific waiver at the Nuclear Suppliers Group, there were many critics within the US who saw this as an unwarranted dilution of the international nonproliferation region. They asked why India was being “favoured” despite possessing nuclear weapons when Washington was working hard to ensure Iran did not develop a military nuclear programme.

Of course, India was not a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty – and ought never to have been penalised by the attendant regime for its weapons programme – while Iran was (and is) party to the NPT and had committed itself to forgoing the weapons option. Nevertheless, debate raged over this chalk-and-cheese comparison and eventually became a stick to extract further concessions from the Indian side.

As India’s own relations with Iran came under sharp scrutiny, New Delhi eventually acceded to the American diktat that its strategic and energy ties with Tehran – including the pursuit of gas import options via pipeline – had to be downgraded if the nuclear deal was to go through. Once India fell in line, Bush was able to crack the whip and ensure the deal’s critics in Congress remained a minority.

Fast forward to 2015. Where earlier it was a Republican president who decided to reverse the India policy of his Democratic predecessor, this time it was a Democratic president, Barack Obama, who pulled out all the stops to suppress a Republican revolt in the Senate that was threatening to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal. Earlier this month, in a major victory for the White House, the deal’s critics were bested on Capitol Hill.

While this is not the place to analyse the contours of the Iran agreement, it differs from the India deal in one major respect. The US-India deal brought India’s civilian nuclear facilities under an international verification regime but exempted its military nuclear programme from such verification. In the case of Iran, which is a signatory to the NPT, however, the already existing supervision of the International Atomic Energy agency (IAEA) has been supplemented in additional ways – the purpose being to help Tehran reassure the international community that there will never be a military dimension to its nuclear activities.

Beyond this difference, however, there is one striking parallel between the Iranian and the Indian deals. In both cases, it was the strategic dynamics of their respective regions that pushed the US towards accommodating New Delhi and Tehran.

Evolution of Indian deal

India’s nuclear programme had begun to face troubles after its first atomic test in 1974. The troubles were as much due to the gradual withdrawal of aid to its nuclear programme by its Western partners, as because of the progressively stringent non-proliferation measures imposed by the evolving international regime, particularly after the first Gulf War of 1991, when the NSG tightened its guidelines to bar the sale of safeguarded nuclear material to countries that were outside the NPT. India’s pariah status became even worse after the nuclear tests of 1998, when the US and others imposed sanctions.

Pokhran-II, however, had come at a time when politico-strategic equations in South Asia had begun to change rapidly. During his tour to India in 1999, the then Russian Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov mooted the idea of a Russia-China-India strategic triangle. The suggestion came immediately after Moscow had made a rapprochement with Beijing, and just at a time when the post-Cold War estrangement of New Delhi and Moscow was coming to an end.

Around the same time, New Delhi and Tehran also began discussing the extension of the proposed Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline (agreed in 1995) to India. US-Pakistan relations deteriorated following the October 1999 coup in Pakistan. Washington imposed further cuts in its aid to Pakistan, already curtailed after Islamabad’s nuclear test of 1998. As the Bush administration took charge, the geopolitical equations in the wider Asia-Pacific region had begun to change as well. China had successfully improved its relations with ASEAN and its economic aid had made significant inroads in Myanmar, the newest ASEAN member on the northeastern frontier of India. Washington was quick to comprehend the benefits of winning over New Delhi’s friendship as a counter to China in the Asia-Pacific, thus adding impetus to New Delhi’s renewed thrust on a Look East policy. As a result of these events, the non-proliferation priorities of the Democratic administration in Washington gave way to a pragmatic perspective on the need to tap into the economic and strategic opportunities that a rising India was presenting; this in turn resulted in a genuine effort to improve relations between the two “estranged democracies.”

New Delhi had major apprehensions with Primakov’s idea of a Russia-India-China strategic triangle because it seemed to introduce rigidity and exclusivity at a time when India believed it was in a position to simultaneously improve its relations with all major powers. Over the years, of course, the RIC triangle has been overshadowed – and made more palatable – by the newer and broader group of countries, BRICS. After the initial enthusiasm, the IPI pipeline too stalled for almost a decade, largely due to American concerns. Though Washington quickly improved its relations with Islamabad following the 9/11 attacks, it also brought about a crucial “dehyphenation” in its South Asia policy – thus walking the tightrope of maintaining good relations simultaneously with New Delhi and Islamabad. The US-India nuclear deal was the cumulative product of all of these events happening in the wider region.

US rapprochement with Iran

The first sign of trouble for Tehran’s nuclear programme appeared in 2003 after allegations by a dissident group that Iran had not reported some sensitive enrichment and reprocessing activities to the IAEA. After a series of agreements between Iran and Europe failed successfully to resolve these issues, the IAEA, with the active encouragement of the US, voted to report Tehran to the UN Security Council.

Iran was asked to suspend its enrichment programme; following its refusal to do so, the UN imposed sanctions. A series of inconclusive negotiations followed – first with the E-3 (UK, France, Germany), and later also with the US, with the continuous participation of the IAEA.

It is true that the election of Obama as president of the US and Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran raised hopes of a deal between the P5+1 and Iran. It is also true that back-channel negotiations between Washington and Tehran helped the two sides move towards a mutually agreeable position. However, as in the case of India, it was the unfolding regional dynamics which played a major role in pushing the two sides towards a deal.

The political landscape of the Middle East after 2011 began to change with the Arab Spring, that led to regime change in four states – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen – and anti-government protests and uprisings in another half dozen countries. One unintended outcome of the Arab Spring was the rise of Islamism in the Middle East – both moderate and radical. The widening sectarian divide between Shias and Sunnis was another unintended impact of the Arab Spring. Anti-government protests and civil unrest in Iraq subsequently led to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now called the Islamic State (IS) or Daesh. These developments coincided with steadily declining American dependence on energy resources from the Middle Eastern and Persian Gulf States, particularly since 2007. This was perhaps an important reason why the US chose not to directly interfere in the region during the Arab Spring, even when regimes friendly to it were threatened.

The rise of the Islamic State, however, has brought about a change in US policy – to the extent to which Washington is back to using military force in the region and reinvolving itself in regional politics. One of Washington’s concerns in the Middle East currently seems to be to avoid having multiple adversaries. The other is, possibly, looking at the merits of a truce with a Shia theological state which is most unlikely to support Sunni radicalism. Both factors seem to have provided added incentive to Obama’s resolve to strike a nuclear deal with Iran.

Thus, in addition to other positive factors, the dynamics of regional international relations have provided an impetus to the making of nuclear deals with Iran too. It remains to be seen how the US brings about a balance in its policy in the Middle East: walking the tightrope of good relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran simultaneously. We are likely to see a Middle Eastern version of “dehyphenation”.

Uttara Sahasrabuddhe is Professor of International Politics at the University of Mumbai. Her email is: [email protected]

  • Partha

    This is somewhat strange logic. If New Delhi can extract advantages by being a nonsignatory to the NPT in contrast to Iran,
    a signatory state, then the nonproliferation regime would have been long dead and gone. The facts are that New Delhi along with
    Islamabad, Tel Aviv and Pyongyang remain isolated for pursuing the goal of an independent nuclear deterrent. The atomic energy
    program does not even have a ‘ Pension Fund’ for its old and outdated nuclear reactors making the real cost of India’s civilian
    nuclear energy program either prohibitively dangerous or prohibitively expensive or both in the case of a possible future expansion
    program where the power ratings will need to be enhanced substantially in order to meet the hunger of a growung economy.