Technology-driven nationalism and proliferation: India, Iran and déjà vu

The negotiations in Geneva last month between Iran and the P5+1 powers demonstrated at least two key elements: a) Washington continues to search for a solution that does not involve a military attack on Tehran, b) Iran holds its “right to uranium enrichment” dearly such that no deal can materialize if it curtails such a right completely. Soon after the deal was struck, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared that the negotiations recognized Iran’s right to enrichment, US Secretary of State John Kerry rebutted that countries did not necessarily have such a right. This exchange underlines a classic misunderstanding between a proliferator state and the United States– the latter’s neglect of the importance of technology-driven nationalism to the former. Iran is the latest example of this. (A Carnegie Endowment Report endorses this, noting that domestic uranium enrichment for Iran is “entangled with too much pride” such that the program has continued despite high economic costs and tough sanctions).


Remember the 1960s?

After India’s plutonium-reprocessing plant began its operation in Trombay in February 1964, the Lyndon B. Johnson administration became anxious of Indian nuclear ambitions.[1] Such concerns increased in the wake of the first Chinese nuclear test in October 1964. Key people in the administration like Robert Komer, McGeorge Bundy and Spurgeon Keeny believed that despite the high economic costs of a nuclear weapons program, technology-driven national pride could become a strong impetus for New Delhi’s desire for the bomb. In mid-1966 therefore, when Secretary of State Dean Rusk submitted the NSAMs 351 and 355 to the President on the “Indian Nuclear Weapons Problem”, he outlined amongst others joint U.S. scientific projects with India to enhance New Delhi’s technological pride in Asia.[2]  On the offer were amongst others, space technology and peaceful uses of atomic energy like food irradiation and desalination. This however, did not help matters improve, since the United States and India began to differ over technology transfers and licensing issues. As developing countries prioritize a science-driven national development project, the indigeneity discourse tends to configure strongly. Technology transfers being vital to indigeneity, are therefore a core element of technology-driven national pride.

India, the first country outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to conduct a nuclear explosion as early as 1974, considered the “right to nuclear explosions” as intrinsic to its national sovereignty – not unlike the “right to enrichment” argument made by Rouhani. When U.S. Atomic Energy Commission chief Glenn Seaborg told his Indian counterpart Vikram Sarabhai during the latter’s visit to India in January 1967, that Washington did not discriminate between explosions for peaceful purposes and military uses, and that India would rather not use the “Plowshare loophole”, Sarabhai replied that the right of states to decide that must not be curtailed by the nonproliferation treaty.[3]

The stakes were high for the United States then as they are now – a nuclear India in the 1960s could lead to a domino effect, and enhance proliferation tendencies in Japan and West Germany. Worse still, how could Washington then chain Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions? Iran’s nuclear program has negated the possibility of developing a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, as much as it has caused tensions between the United States and its ally Israel.

Having an ally in an adversarial relationship with the proliferator state complicates the United States’ chances of offering confidence-building inducements to the latter. Apprehensions of complaints by Ayub Khan that Washington was going soft on New Delhi, challenged Washington’s maneuvers in the 1960s, as much as do threats by Binyamin Netanyahu to go-it-alone and bomb Iran by itself. At the same time, mistrust between India and the United States ran so high at the time, with differences over Vietnam, PL-480 food aid, and currency devaluation, to name a few, that it challenged the United States’ capacities to make its inducements seem credible. (These differences reflected in the negotiations at the Eighteen Nations Disarmament Committee in Geneva for a nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and on the question of nuclear security guarantees for non-nuclear weapons states like India) This resonates with Bob Jervis’ latest article on Iran in Foreign Affairs in which underlines that when mutual mistrust runs high, making credible promises is more difficult than making credible threats.


The Value of Retrospective Wisdom

In the six-month time period that the West has bought in order to come up with a final solution to Iran’s nuclear problem, much can be done. If the Indian case makes any point, it is that technology-driven national pride of developing countries with proliferating tendencies is more significant than it has been given credit for. Hence, when trying to resolve differences, the P5+1 negotiators must remain sensitive to Iran’s claims of its enrichment rights. Denial of such rights will be deemed equivalent to the denial of Tehran’s national sovereignty to Rouhani and his men.

Incremental confidence building measures can be instituted between Tehran and Washington involving joint scientific projects that enhance Iranian technology-driven national pride. Once again, one has to be cautious about the issues of technology transfer and licensing, so that these joint endeavors do not fall flat on their faces, as the Indian case shows. To quote Jervis again, threats and promises often undercut than complement each other. The appropriate balance of the carrot and the stick at the negotiating table is thus difficult to determine, but not impossible to attain.

India during the 1960s was neither an ally nor an outright adversary. It was a country whose support Washington sought against a belligerent Communist China in Asia, but rarely received owing to New Delhi’s nonaligned priorities. An enemy legitimizes the use of military threats as a nonproliferation strategy, which a non-enemy more often does not. This increased challenges several folds for the United States and limited its chances of success with India – Washington was left with neither a credible carrot nor a convincing stick. Fortunately, this is not the case with Iran. The Obama administration avoids the vocabulary of “redlines” but might embrace it if it keeps running of alternatives in its nonproliferation toolbox. As the Western negotiators contemplate various options over the next six months, the question of right to enrichment will recur from the Iranian end, and the former would do better to ignore the significance of this, and of its potential impact on the success of the negotiations.


[1] Memo by George C. Denney, Jr. , Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Department of State to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, 24 February 1964, NSF Robert Komer Files, Box 25, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, TX (henceforth LBJL).

[2] National Security Action Memorandum 351, 10 June 1966, and National Security Action Memorandum 355, 1 August 1966, NSF NSAM Files, LBJL.

[3] Report of Glenn T. Seaborg on his trip to Australia, Thailand, India, and Pakistan, Jan 3-14, 1967, NSF Files of Harold Saunders, Box 14, LBJL.

Posted in , India, Iran, Negotiations, Nonproliferation, NPT, Nuclear, Nuclear Security, Nuclear Weapons, US

Jayita Sarkar

Jayita Sarkar

Jayita Sarkar is a Research Fellow with the Security Studies Program at MIT's Center for International Studies. Her expertise is in international security, nuclear proliferation, foreign policy analysis, and South Asia. Dr. Sarkar’s writings have been published in peer-reviewed journals like Cold War History, International History Review, and Critique Internationale and policy-relevant outlets like The National Interest and Foreign Policy magazine among others. Sarkar is a former Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and holds a Ph.D. in International History and Politics from the Graduate Institute Geneva in Switzerland.

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