Misfiring at the India Nuclear Deal

Critics have lashed out at the proposed U.S.-India nuclear agreement, arguing that it would harm efforts to contain the spread of nuclear weapons and reward India for bad behavior. They don't know a good deal when they see one.

Washington and New Delhi are eager to finalize an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation, preferably in time for President George W. Bushs trip to India this week. As details of the deal are being negotiated, it is coming under heavy fire in the United States, particularly from nonproliferation groups and members of Congress. But these criticisms often miss the point and are sometimes flat-out wrong.

Washington and New Delhi are eager to finalize an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation, preferably in time for President George W. Bushs trip to India this week. As details of the deal are being negotiated, it is coming under heavy fire in the United States, particularly from nonproliferation groups and members of Congress. But these criticisms often miss the point and are sometimes flat-out wrong.

The deal, which was first announced last July, stipulates that the United States will recognize India as a country with advanced nuclear technology and work to change U.S. nonproliferation laws to allow civilian nuclear cooperation with India, as well as convince the 44-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to make an exception for India to allow such cooperation to take place. In return, India will separate its civilian and weapons facilities, place civilian facilities under safeguards, maintain its voluntary moratorium on testing, and work with the United States to negotiate a Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty.

The most common criticism of the deal is that it would undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which rewards countries that have renounced nuclear weapons with access to nuclear technology to help meet their energy needs. In trying to give India a special exemption, the New York Times recently argued in an editorial, Mr. Bush is threatening the nonproliferation treatys carrot-and-stick approach, which for more than 35 years has dissuaded countries that are capable of building or buying nuclear arms from doing so.

Its not that simple. The nonnuclear states under the NPTsuch as Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, and South Koreaare deemed to be responsible actors in the international system because they have agreed not to develop nuclear weapons. Supposedly, that demonstrates that they do not need nuclear weapons for their defense. Yet many of these countries have not actually renounced nuclear deterrence; they merely outsource their nuclear defense instead. More than 450 U.S. nuclear weapons remain on European soil, and under NATO doctrine they can be placed under the operational command of the host nonnuclear states in times of crises. These crises include not only nuclear attacks by hostile actors but also chemical and biological weapons attacks. Japan and South Korea similarly remain under a U.S. nuclear umbrella. Yet this form of noncompliance has not induced Argentina, Brazil, or South Africa to develop nuclear weapons.

The deals opponents also like to argue that, in order to be fair and equitable, the same agreement must be extended to all other declared nuclear states that have remained outside the NPTnamely Pakistan. That assumes that treating all non-NPT states in the same way would somehow make the regime more legitimate. In practice, though, the nonproliferation regimes survival has depended on discrimination. Japan is allowed to reprocess spent fuel and stockpile plutonium, but South Korea is not. South Korean scientists secretly enriched uranium to weapons grade, forged uranium metal from imported fertilizer, and secretly reprocessed plutoniumyet Seoul was not reprimanded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), even though Iran is facing sanctions for similar activities. Discrimination in favor of India, then, is not an unprecedented act that necessitates immediate redress by extending a similar deal to Pakistan. And if the larger point isnt clear enough, consider that the United States is being condemned for an agreement on civilian cooperation with India, whereas there is no discussion of the impact of Chinese nuclear weapons designs transferred to Pakistan (from which they have traveled to Iran, Libya, and North Korea).

Another popular critique is that if the NSG changes its full-scope safeguards requirement to allow nuclear commerce with India, its credibility and effectiveness would be undermined. The NSG was created as an informal (non-treaty based) political agreement after the 1974 Indian nuclear test. The rationale was not, as many claim, to punish India. Indeed, the record suggests that the creators of the NSG presumed that the Indian nuclear weapons program was already beyond the reach of their sanctions. Instead, NSG was meant to tighten export controls, ensure that France (which didnt join the NPT until 1992) was on board with nonproliferation, and make sure that the nonnuclear states didnt misuse the civilian nuclear technology they were receiving.

India is not only worthy of exemption to the full-scope safeguards requirement but is a desirable and qualified candidate for membership in the NSG. Full-scope safeguards were introduced to catch cheating by declared nonnuclear weapon statesnot to discover weapons programs in non-NPT states. The nuclear facilities that India declares civilian would be under full-scope safeguards as part of the deal. That would mean that no weapons activity is pursued in those facilities and no materials or technology are diverted from those facilities to the military facilities or to any undeclared or unsafeguarded civilian facilities in India.

Lest we forget, India actually has the potential to be a nuclear supplier to other countries. Thankfully, until now, it has not realized this potential. Most of its nuclear exports have been either under IAEA technical cooperation programs or to NSG states. Its domestic export control system is more comprehensive than many NSG members, and its actual record of voluntary restraint on nuclear exports is certainly better than even some nuclear weapons states that are in the NSG. When the deal was announced last summer, India voluntarily and completely harmonized its domestic control list with those of the NSG.

Most critics take for granted Indias stringent export controls and its solid record on nonproliferation, and therefore dont see the need to reward it. That calculation is wrong and dangerous. It assumes incorrectly that domestic political support for those policies will continue indefinitely. Indian politicians are increasingly ferocious and partisan on issues of security and foreign policy. The Indian right wing, for instance, is already portraying Indian policy of restraint, dialogue, and rapprochement with the nonproliferation regime as nave idealism harmful to national defense. We should also bear in mind that Indias economic liberalization has already unleashed trade in a range of high-technology areas that traverse the spectrum of dual-use, an area that is of growing concern to the nonproliferation regime.

Finally, critics have recently argued that supplying India with nuclear fuel will free up domestic uranium for weapons purposes, allowing unchecked expansion of its nuclear weapons arsenal. That glosses over the fact that in the absence of this deal, India would be free to use any and all of its power and research reactors for weapons purposes.

Ultimately, opponents of the deal have a big problem: They have no good alternatives. The Indian nuclear weapons program is hardened against sanctions. The civilian program, however inefficient, will be kept alive no matter what. The proposed deal offers the best chance of ensuring Indian transparency and accountability. It offers unambiguous gains for nonproliferation, which is why IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei has endorsed the deal. A cancellation of this agreement would be a victory for no one.

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