Childish, strategic or both?

It’s America’s turn to decide how important it is to prevent a nuclear Iran

Foreign policy is the business of doing what is necessary to safeguard and promote the national interest. Resolving that nasty business of Iran and its nuclear shenanigans is every bit more serious that settling scores with the US Ambassador for having dared to verbally threaten India with dire consequences if it does not play ball on Iran. So when some anonymous ‘senior officials’ put out the word that India plans to abstain after Mulford’s remarks, the first impression is one of childishness, not realpolitik.

Yet this may well be a strategic move India’s part: a diplomatic threat to soften up the United States on the negotiations over the bilateral nuclear cooperation deal. The UPA government’s parliamentary allies are opposed both to the nuclear deal with the US and also to the vote against Iran. Furthermore, it is also clear — to both India and the United States — that delivering on the threat will impose undesirable costs on India. These factors make the threat credible. In fact, the United States would do well to take this threat seriously before India’s domestic political dynamic takes it out of Dr Manmohan Singh’s control.

How would the United States respond if it believed that the threat is credible? It has two options: turn David Mulford into a scapegoat, or be less inflexible on nuclear cooperation negotiations. Either of these will allow the Indian government to achieve (or declare) victory. What could go wrong here is that the US government’s decision-making process, like that of its Indian counterpart, can end up hostage to domestic political compulsions, unraveling the deal with India.

In any case, the ball is in Washington’s court. It has itself to blame for this, for Mulford’s remarks were altogether unnecessary. As for the Indian government, it is to be hoped that its posturing is the result of calculated strategy, not mere childishness.

14 thoughts on “Childish, strategic or both?”

  1. If this nuclear deal between US and India break apart for whatever reason – be it nuclear Iran or pipeline or something else – things won’t ment on the strategic front between the two countries for a long to come. India may well pay second fiddle to proposed China-Russia-India triangular axis or just withdraw from world state on the strategic front for a while (after coming on the stage less than a decade ago) – either case is a very bad thing.

    Getting the nuclear deal working is more important to India than US.

  2. The US ambassador’s statements were among the dumbest things I’ve heard. If I were the US president, I would let a decent tiem period pass, then recall him. These are the sort of things that should be mentioned in private conversations, hinted at, not mentioned in a public news conference.

    At this point, it would be very hard for India to be seen as going along with US pressure simply because of the Ambassador’s statements.

  3. What surprises me is not the Ambassador’s comments, but the Indian government’s reaction to both that and the ceaseless sabre-rattling by the US government on voting against Iran. The USA seems either very eager to scuttle the nuclear deal, or probably has some other axe to grind in its wake – at least thats what I can gather from its pushing the government to the opposite end, when it was clear India would vote against Iran, unless forced otherwise!!

    I can understand if the yanks dont want to point fingers at their favourite ally in the region and its nuclear shenanigans, but India not doing so in spite of tons of evidence to the contrary – and when, in fact Pakistan is amongst the sources for Iran – is a shame. And especially given that

  4. Correction:

    And especially given that we are living in a world where there is increasing emphasis on non-proliferation to “rogue” states!

    I think India should probably abstain – the US has given it substantial ammunition to defend such a stance.

  5. Chandra & Prasanna,

    This seems to be an example of brinkmanship; almost textbook style. The government has made a commitment (in the form of a threat), the threat is credible as it imposes mutual costs, and there is a risk that events may escalate beyond the player’s control.

    This is not as much about India’s Iran policy (that is a side show, as Primary Red writes in his post, in comment #6) as much as it is a move to secure a favourable outcome in the India-US deal. After breaking new ground on non-proliferation policy, President Bush can’t go back home empty handed; so there is pressure on American negotiators to conclude something before that.

    So this is not jostling between two hostile parties, for I believe both countries realise that a ‘strategic tango’ is in their interests. It is jostling among partners for better terms. Perhaps even Mulford’s remarks were intended to something similar; but they backfired. Advantage India.

  6. India and US caught in a game of prisoner’s dilemma?
    Lemme refresh my basic theoretical economics memory. Its not a static game in complete information (hence no nash equilibria solutions in pure strategies), its more likely a dynamic game (repeated moves) in incomplete information (neither player knows the other’s “type”). Solution concept is what’s called the PBE (Perfect Bayuesian Equilibrium). Sadly, its far too tough for me to recall its exact contours w/o my old textbook to see how it may play out in this case….

  7. Nitin,

    Advantage India, yep. In fact if we use the commies to better effect, we could have the cake and eat it too! 🙂

    And yes, the Iran fiasco is just a side-show, my grouse was more with the Government’s lack of skills or rather refusal to play hardball (until the recent hints at absention). Talk of an “independent” policy when we refuse to play hardball irks me no end. Mulford did a favour to MMS no doubt.

  8. The architect of the deal Brajesh Misra (or is it Mishra) is not sure any more. He thinks the deal is being used by the Americans to scuttle India’s future strategic capability – trash the deal in waste basket, he says!!

    There is something to this based on Nick Burns/Shyam Sharan two days reactors separation talks with no resolution. I am not sure it’s advantage India. I hope Shyam Sharan can hold off PM Manmohan (because he seem to really want to do it) and the Americans and sign a lightly worded agreement during Bush’s visit.

  9. This nuclear deal will go ahead no matter what, whether this year, next year or next. US and India, both need it badly. India needs it for its energy needs, so it can’t give it away either.

    Even if Indians can get a good bargain Now, The US will have a handle on Indian foreign policy making for atleast all of next generation, due to the energy plug that it can threaten to pull-out anytime. Indian drawback is that it doesn’t have enough raw materials to feed its reactors, so unless it can find an alternate raw material, or an alternate source of energy, it looks like there’s no way out except to follow suit.

    The good thing is that its the US which will have a handle on Indian-policy making and not someone worse. The bad thing is that Indians might start having a deja-vu feeling about the Raj, going by the Indian mentality to be free-minded.

    India won’t lose much except another generation of dreams of being developed, if it gives up on this deal. If it goes through, India still have a chance of developing an alternate energy technology or a reliable nuclear fuel source, at the same time gulping down te bitter pill regarding its policy choices, that it might have to, from time to time. India might even have to become imperialistic to fulfil the goal of a reliable energy source, if it doesn’t wants to stay behind.

    Who would’ve thought becoming developed comes at such a price 🙂

  10. How about retaliating by asking America to stop providing economic aid, military help and diplomatic support for state sponsors of terrorism in return for us not hooking up with Syria and Iran?

  11. Jagadish, can we do that even if we ourselves are engaged in peace talks and cricket matches with the sponsors?

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