America’s nuclear deal with India is stalled as key Indian political parties reject what has been billed as one of the Bush administration’s biggest foreign policy achievements. As this happens, America inches toward war with Iran with no progress being made toward a negotiated solution.
Both cases involve the challenge of nuclear proliferation. And in both cases the administration has missed an opportunity to make sensible progress, opting instead for an exaggerated approach resulting in a bad deal.
In neither case should the United States be undercutting long-held nonproliferation doctrine. In both cases it should be promoting constructive engagement.
In the case of India, George W. Bush is right to pursue stronger ties. But his administration was so eager for a deal that sufficient thought wasn’t given to the implications of “an agreement at any cost” approach. As captured in Glenn Kessler’s book, “The Confidante,” professionals in the State Department would have preferred to pursue an agreement with India that would not undercut the incremental approach to nuclear cooperation.
Instead, the administration went for a deal that would abandon a three-decade long policy that had cautiously approached nuclear collaboration because India used a civilian nuclear program to produce fissile material for weapons.
The final agreement lays out a framework that would allow trade in nuclear reactors, technology, and fuel. It would permit India to reprocess nuclear fuel and open the way for the United States to become a “reliable” supplier for India’s energy program.
Critics said the deal had dangerous consequences for the ability of the U.S. to discourage the spread of nuclear weapons. There is growing recognition in Congress that the deal sets a bad example because India would win access to U.S. technology without complying with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The agreement also is controversial in India, where close association with the United States is viewed with suspicion, and leftist parties want a degree of distance with it.
With talks suspended until next month, the moral of this story is that strategic partnerships, while desirable, shouldn’t be slapped together. Thoughtful dialogue and engagement can develop shared approaches to mutual challenges, despite differences that inevitably will continue.
That’s relevant to the case of Iran, where Bush was also right to reverse almost 30 years of U.S. policy that had forbidden direct engagement. But since that decision in spring 2005, the administration has barely met with any senior Iranian officials and politicians.
Nor has it had contact with the vibrant Iranian society, which in terms of demographics, education and perhaps even international orientation could one day soon emulate the evolution of Turkey. Hints by the administration at “World War III” inhibit any constructive atmosphere and context for negotiations that could make that option unnecessary.
The U.S. “negotiating” posture of demonizing and criticizing the Iranian regime stands in sharp contrast with bilateral and multilateral negotiations with North Korea. If the negotiations with North Korea prove successful and enduring, they are in some ways a model as to how to negotiate with Iran.
The North was more defiant than Iran and confronted the United States head on, stating openly that it sought to have, and indeed did have, nuclear weapons. Despite the odious rhetoric of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the starting point with Tehran is in some ways easier, which as of yet does not have a weapon, and claims that it does not want to develop one.
There are those like Defense Secretary Robert Gates who bring a constructive mind-set to the debate within the administration. Gates cochaired a Council on Foreign Relations task force in 2003 that concluded that direct dialogue without restrictions would serve Iran’s interests and achieve U.S. objectives.
More important, the task force’s report noted that the United States and Iran need not wait for “absolute harmony” between governments: While relations cannot be normalized without a commitment to abandoning nuclear weapons and abandoning support for terrorist groups, those requirements should not be preconditions for dialogue.
That’s a better approach than one involving artificial deadlines, name-calling, and saber-rattling, which are destructive to getting any negotiating process underway.
Both in the case of India and Iran, exaggerated positions replaced patient engagement and the cultivation of a constructive atmosphere to pursue realistic goals.
Mark Brzezinski, an international lawyer in Washington, served on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration. This article appeared first in The Boston Globe.
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- Manjana Milkoreit and Jason Blackstock argue for No Sanctions, No Strikes: Plan C for Iran