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A Publication
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Non-Proliferation Dynamic: American ‘Soft Containment’ Of Iran And India

By K.M Seethi

26 July, 2015

Contemporary debates on the ‘decline’ of American power in the global political landscape, initiated by some scholars and think tanks, tend to underestimate the pervasive-dynamic of the ‘techno-legit’ order which makes the United States ascendency in international relations an indispensable factor in the decades to come. The construct of the global ‘techno-legit' order calls for a deeper understanding of the mutually reinforcing dynamics of relations of power embedded in the world capitalist system and its structural as well as legal-normative linkage with institutions/regimes in the post-Washington Consensus setting. In such a regime of ‘consent’ and interconnectivity, the United States has already emerged as a ‘global regulatory agency’ with its immense (technological and legal) control of the structures and agencies of the global system. Conceivably, all regions and countries of the world are more integrally connected with the US-negotiated techno-legit order today than any time in history. Notwithstanding the setbacks the US had to endure after the global recession or 9/11, what is perceived to be a ‘national tragedy’ (or a setback) in the US is inexorably a challenge to techno-legit order. Hence the stability/instability of the US has become the stability/instability of the global techno-legit order and vice versa.

The United States, having established its transnational strategic linkages with global regimes and organisations, is exercising its influence/power through policies, programmes and pacts with virtually all countries in the global system. The most critical regimes of American power dynamic include global neoliberal regime (the World Bank, IMF, UNDP etc), trade and intellectual property rights regime (WTO), global science policy regime (UNESCO etc), strategic industries regimes (military-industrial complex and nuclear-space complex), service regimes (health-industrial complex, information-communication complex, educational-academic complex, banking-financial complex) and non-proliferation regime (NPT). There can be other corollaries of these strategic regimes where the United States continues to play a regulatory role in several ways. In many cases, these regulatory roles tend to assume the character of soft-containment of oppositional forces. Soft-containment is a global regulatory strategy of Washington, seeking to ensure that national actors conform to the norms and principles of the techno-legit order so that any transformation in the global system is within the limits set by techno-capitalism, the leadership of which is with the US. The possibilities of actors (such as China) emerging to threaten this order are remote given the low power dynamic of such countries vis-a-vis the techno-legit order. One major area of this dynamic is non-proliferation where the US has enormous strategic concerns and advantage.

The American soft-containment of Iran and India therefore calls for a deeper level analysis within the ‘logic of nuclear anarchy’ in the regions of the West Asia-Gulf and South Asia. There is a rationale for deploying the non-proliferation dynamic to make a comparative analysis of the US strategy in dealing with the two major actors in the regions of West Asia-Gulf and South Asia. In both cases, Washington used the ‘techno-legit’ circuits to contain Iran and India, the former an NPT adherent and the latter an NPT non-compliant. Both are also non-aligned countries (with Iran currently holding the Chairmanship of NAM). Though the strategy with respect to India and Iran was initially in the nature of sanction-based containment, following reports about their nuclear activities, the US came round to the view that soft-containment would be a better option/more appropriate under the non-proliferation regime.

Soft-containment of Iran falls within the circuits of global techno-legit order. Initially, Iran and six powers (P5+1, the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) entered into an agreement in November 2013 on an interim deal to control Tehran's nuclear programme in exchange for some easing of sanctions that had undermined Iran’s economy. Sanctions had already cost Iran $120 billion in lost revenue since the US and other western powers imposed barrier on Iran in 2010 and countries that engaged in trade with Teheran. The share of Iran’s oil reserves is about 9.4 per cent of the world total, but the internal consumption comes only to 2.2 per cent. Iranian reserves are among the world’s largest, fourth only to Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Canada. Hence the circuits of techno-legit order cannot afford to alienate Iran further; rather the appropriate strategy would be soft-containment. Iran agreed in February 2014 to take seven further steps within three months under a deal with the IAEA. One of the measures related to a long-stalled investigation by the IAEA into Iran's nuclear programme. It appears to be a significant step forward as the investigation into suspected nuclear weapons research has been deadlocked for years. The six-month agreement, which offers Iran about $7 billion in relief from sanctions in exchange for non-proliferation commitments leaves in place banking and financial measures that hampered Iran’s crude exports. There were apprehensions with respect to Tehran’s commitment beyond six months, it was obvious that under the current circuits of the techno-legit order, the US would continue to act as the global regulatory agency with its immense power of influence within the IAEA. However, the soft-containment of Iran has sent a powerful message to all other regional actors that Washington will have high stakes in the West Asia-Gulf region in respect of non-proliferation. After intense negotiations, the deal has now come to stay. It seeks to bring down the number of Iranian centrifuges by two-thirds. It would put a ban on enrichment at key facilities, and limit uranium research and development to the Natanz facility. The deal further caps uranium enrichment at 3.67 percent and limits the stockpile to 300 kg, all for 15 years. Iran will be required to ship spent fuel out of the country forever, as well as allow inspectors from the IAEA inspectors certain access in perpetuity. Heightened inspections, including tracking uranium mining and monitoring the production and storage of centrifuges, will last for up to 20 years. The U.S.says that the new measures take Iran from being able to assemble its first bomb within 2-3 months, to at least one year from now.

In the case of India, the US followed a similar strategy of soft-containment with its implications for countries across regions (such as Pakistan). Washington used Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act titled “Cooperation with Other nations” to effect soft-containment. The Civil Nuclear Agreement signed between India and the United States unfolds a significant step in binding New Delhi to the non-proliferation regime. Some would call it India’s backdoor entry into NPT. The conditions put across by Washington for agreeing to have a nuclear deal with India were related to the latter’s willingness to accept the provisions of the American Hyde Act, signing a major agreement with IAEA and another with the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). While acknowledging India’s nuclear weapon status through these commitments, Washington sought to ensure that the ground rules of the techno-legit order are obeyed by the recipient unequivocally – first by agreeing to the conditions set by the US in respect of India’s support to its position on Iran in IAEA and then conforming to the rules of non-proliferation (such as New Delhi’s readiness to open its civil nuclear plants for IAEA-led international inspection). The Indo-US nuclear deal is thus a major breakthrough in overcoming New Delhi’s isolation following the Pokhran-II nuclear tests in 1998. The compulsion for such a deal could be seen as ‘mutuality of interests’ (such as energy deficit of India and reactor business of American companies) under the techno-legit order, but the US engagement, in fact, amounted to soft-containment of India’s nuclear ambition, thereby invoking non-proliferation precepts for ensuring its global commitment. It further underlines that the US engagements in Asia (such as West Asia, South Asia and East Asia) on critical questions of non-proliferation are as consequential as it is in combating terrorism and fundamentalism within the circuits of techno-legit order.

K.M.SEETHI is Director, School of International Relations and Politics and Honorary Director, KN Raj Centre, Mahatma Gandhi University, Priyadarshini Hills PO., Kottayam, Kerala, India-686560, He is also Editor of South Asian Journal of Diplomacy and the Journal of Political Economy and Fiscal Federalism.












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