Justifying a Nuclear Iran: U.S. Relations With India and Pakistan Show Peace Can Be Had

To put the U.S.-Iran nuclear relationship into context, I began my last PolicyMic article by introducing this idea: There is no need for the current state of tensions with Iran regarding its nuclear program. Historically, Washington has overcome initial disputes to form pragmatic relations with nuclear states. In this article, I continue my argument with a discussion of India and Pakistan, both states somewhat more volatile than Iran, and how Washington has managed to establish working relations on nuclear issues with both.

In 1974, India became a military nuclear power despite strong American opposition. In contrast to the 1970s, however, contemporary India is one of Washington’s most important regional allies, celebrating working agreements on the exchange of nuclear material, know-how and equipment. Among the major world powers, Indian foreign policy is the most unique. India has important and deep connections with all major poles of power. In military matters, India has strong ties with Russia, America, Europe and China. In this respect, it is the most diversified of the great powers.

The United States did help India acquire civilian nuclear technology in the 1950s as part of a U.S. campaign to help develop the nation's economy. Once the International Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into effect in 1968, however, India refused to sign it, creating a political rift between India and America. In 1974, India's testing of a nuclear weapon to demonstrate that it had the capacity to militarize nuclear technology only served to chill U.S.-India relations, leading Washington to cancel nuclear relations with the country until the early 2000s.

In 2006, the Bush administration signed a civilian nuclear deal with India, indicating the return of trust between the countries. The deal took place outside of the NPT, which India still is not a signatory. The deal, finalized in 2008, signalled an end to the 30-year American moratorium on nuclear technology exchange with India. The agreement also commits India to maintaining a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing and also increases the security of its nuclear arsenals. Conversely, its civilian reactors are under the observation of the International Atomic Energy Agency and must abide by international safety standards in this respect. Nuclear technology transfer between the U.S. and India is also a part of the agreed conditions, but solely for civilian purposes.

The 2006 treaty with India is America’s effort to counter Chinese influence in South East Asia. It supports my arguement in this article that U.S. nuclear policy can be opposed to other world powers that pursue nuclear powers, while simultaneously engaging competing powers in a pragmatic way, without escalation of hostilities. Washington, for its part, formally recognizes India as a member of the nuclear club. It's nuclear program cannot be reversed at this point in time, and the practical policy choice is to engage, rather than oppose New Delhi. India, for its part, gains international legitimacy for its nuclear program as it opens its program to greater international scrutiny and management of nuclear facilities and weapons. The 2006 treaty shows that foreign policy has matured for both sides. The U.S. can tolerate the rise of other nuclear powers within a cooperative framework. India can adjust to new international responsibilities as a nuclear state.

U.S.-Pakistan relations

Out of all the countries discussed in this article, Pakistan is the newest member of the nuclear club, yielding weaponized nuclear capabilities since 1998. The infamous Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist with a pivotal role in giving the country its nuclear capacity and spreading the technology to surrounding states, is a symbol not only of the difficulty in managing nuclear proliferation, but that it will spread irrespective of what the leading nuclear powers do. The 1998 nuclear tests by Pakistan and India led the Clinton administration to impose sanctions on both countries, but the policy was gradually reversed by the Bush Administration in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The Pakistani-American relationship became increasingly important with the 2001 NATO invasion of Afghanistan the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.

The volatility of Pakistani politics, the alliance between the ISI and sub-state armed groups in Eastern Afghanistan and Western Pakistan, and the tenuous relationship between Washington and Islamabad all combine to form a love-hate relationship between the world's most powerful nation and its regional ally.

It is Pakistan’s Cold War-esque relationship with India that is one of the major sources of concern for Islamabad. Pakistan still regards India the biggest threat to its security, and the risk of nuclear exchange between the neighbours cannot be entirely ruled out.

In respect to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Washington worries that Pakistan could be penetrated by elements, either foreign or domestic, that would compromise the country’s system of nuclear checks, balances and safeguards. And despite Pakistani assurances to the safety of its nuclear arsenal, Washington is designing a system of guarantees that will keep Pakistan’s nuclear assets safe from insurgent groups.

America can likely enter into a nuclear non-proliferation treaty with Pakistan in the same way as it did with Russia, covering nuclear weapon safety, export controls on military technology and the regulation and monitoring of civilian nuclear facilities. The major obstacle that continues to divide the two countries, however, is Pakistan's refusal to sign the NPT, Chinese economic support of the Pakistani nuclear program, and Pakistan's ongoing competition with India.

The expected withdrawal of substantial U.S. assets from Afghanistan in 2014 will place ever greater importance on the vitality of U.S.-Pakistan relations. The nuclear dimension will be one of the core tenets of that alliance. It must be based on trust and cooperation. It must address nuclear non-proliferation and wider security issues in the Mideast. Information sharing, common standards on safety, reporting and control of nuclear facilities and weapons, would be a favourable medium- to long-term policy choice for Washington. As Washington's influence in the region diminishes, Pakistan must become a strong regional partner in a predictable nuclear relationship.

In the final piece, I will suggest an alternative reason for the high tensions with Iran and accompany that argument with an analysis of the above three cases in relation to Iran.

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