It was announced today, July 21, that India has promised the visiting U.S. secretary of state that two nuclear power plant sites will be reserved exclusively for U.S. bidders. It’s the payoff resulting from the immensely controversial U.S.-India nuclear deal that was finalized during the final year of George W. Bush’s administration, ending decades of nuclear embargo. And as such it’s being hailed as a small victory for U.S. diplomacy and an opportunity for hard-pressed U.S. business. Yet it’s a strange world in which a country, described until just the day before yesterday as a defiant nuclear outcast, suddenly is being welcomed into a nuclear club in which few restrictions apply.
Consider the history: following a nuclear weapons test in 1974, which the Indians disingenuously characterized as the demonstration of a "peaceful nuclear explosive" (as if such radioactive bombs were going to be used in civil engineering projects), nuclear suppliers strictly limited sales to India; India had used material in the test that had been produced in a Canada-supplied reactor, circumventing international safeguards. During the next decades, India refrained from further testing but also refused to endorse the principle of non-proliferation on grounds that it "disarmed the armed while leaving the unarmed free to keep arming." Why, asked Indian nuclear strategists, taking their cues from French theorists, would an Indian nuclear bomb increase the risk of war when, as all could see, U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals were deterring the two superpowers from going to war?
In the aftermath of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests of 1998, which resulted in both countries' openly becoming nuclear weapons states, efforts to maintain restrictions on nuclear trade with India gradually lost steam. Naturally companies that stood to make sales to India urged their governments to lift restrictions: they made that argument loud and clear, and it was hard to resist. But there was also a second argument, hardly if ever made explicitly, but perhaps in the back of some policymakers' minds--an argument not considered respectable in the United States during the previous decades, but now quietly gaining ground.
During the 24 years separating the first and second Indian tests--years in which, by the way, opportunities to keep the subcontinent nuclear-free were squandered--nobody in the United States wanted to indulge India's notion that possession of nuclear weapons would make the world more peaceful, not more violent. Pushed to its logical limit, a world in which every Tom, Dick or Harry had a nuclear arsenal, the idea seemed utterly insane. But ask yourself, confining your attention to the subcontinent, whether war between Pakistan and India is more or less likely now that both have nuclear arsenals. To judge from many recent events, notably the way both countries handled the terrorist attack in Mumbai last year, the honest answer would seem to be that their going nuclear has reduced the likelihood of war between them.
To look ahead, will the Iran story play out along essentially the same lines? Once it has acquired all the wherewithal needed to make an atomic bomb and actually makes one, will Israel then come out of the closet and openly declare itself a nuclear weapons state too? Will war between Israel and Iran then become absolutely unthinkable? And will that soon imply that U.S. companies can sell Iran anything they want?