Controversial India-U.S. Nuclear Deal Hangs in Balance

A major agreement lifting restrictions on nuclear commerce with India, which Washington and Delhi have been negotiating for years, finally has reached its final hurdle, approval by Congress. The Bush administration has just a couple of weeks to get the U.S. legislature's assent before adjournment, and may not succeed. The draft agreement has been immensely controversial in both India and the United States, as well as in several other influential countries. Just the thought of it came close to bringing down the Indian government this summer.

The main Indian opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has condemned the agreement as a "nonproliferation trap" that will prevent the country from realizing its full military potential. The Hindu right has been particularly incensed by reports that Delhi made back-channel promises to never test nuclear weapons again, as a condition of getting a go-ahead for the deal from the Nuclear Suppliers Group , 45 countries that export nuclear technology.

The decision on Sept. 6 by the Nuclear Suppliers Group to support the deal was the next-to-last hurdle that the agreement had to clear before going to Congress. The Arms Control Association--the ordinarily staid and cautious voice of the American arms control establishment--assailed the supplier group's move as "a nonproliferation disaster of historic proportions" supported only by "Orwellian claims." London's Financial Times called the U.S.-India agreement "a bad deal" that "makes a mockery of the non-proliferation treaty" and threatens to "accelerate the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan."

So enraged has been the Arms Control Association, two weeks ago it circulated a report from Platts Nuclear News Flash claiming that Germany was caving into the U.S. position because of crass commercial concerns. (According to the Platts report, France--a supporter of the U.S.-India deal--would let Germany's Siemens retain a one-third stake in the French nuclear manufacturer Areva if Germany dropped objections to the Indian deal in the suppliers group, which it has been chairing.)

Let's calm down a little and consider the various arguments and counter-arguments analytically.

First, it's true as an Indian expert author argued in Spectrum last year, that India's performance in nuclear energy has consistently lagged behind expectations, and that claims made for the deal by the Indian government should therefore be treated with suspicion. But doesn't this cut both ways? India's past shortcomings have had a good deal with its go-it-alone path; the agreement with the United States, if approved by Congress, will allow the country to import nuclear reactors for the first time since its initial 1974 nuclear weapons test, and tentative plans call for it to buy about eight.

Second, it's true that making it easier for India to import nuclear fuel also will make it easier for the country to obtain fissile material for its atomic bombs; nuclear material is fungible. But isn't the horse already out of the barn? India has gone nuclear and will not give up its arsenal unless every other nuclear weapons state does the same--a position it has consistently adhered to since the 1950s, when its diplomats first starting calling nuclear nonproliferation an attempt to disarm the unarmed, while leaving the armed free to keep arming.

Yes, it sticks in the craw (third) to now allow India to import nuclear technology freely, after it used imported technology, in defiance of pledges made, to get material for its first bomb. But is this "rewarding" India, or just acknowledging that something has changed that can't be unchanged? And (fourth) how much, really, will the agreement further heat up an arms race between India and Pakistan that's already very heated?

Maybe this is the really decisive point: for sure, the special treatment India gets in the deal is bound to enrage Pakistanis, whose ongoing assistance is crucial to hunting down Al Qaeda's leaders, ending the global war on terror, and bringing U.S. troops home. Given Pakistan's extreme instability, is it really a good idea to feed flames there, without truly compelling cause?

Just for the sake of a few reactor sales, do we want to worsen the odds of an Islamist government coming to power in nuclear-armed Pakistan?


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