Politics & Policy

With Friends Like This …

Uncivil Indian nuclear cooperation.

Less than a week after the U.S. Senate hastily cleared the way for generous U.S. nuclear cooperation with India, New Delhi made three announcements that pretty much destroyed the White House’s arguments for proceeding.

First, within hours of the Senate vote, India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh met in New Delhi with Iran’s new foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, and reaffirmed India’s interest in securing massive amounts of natural gas from Iran and upholding a previous Indian strategic cooperation agreement with Tehran.

Second — and with great fanfare — on November 20 Singh and Chinese president Hu Jintao signed a declaration committing their two countries to cooperate on civilian nuclear energy and to expand trade (to a level even higher than between the U.S. and India).

Finally, India’s new foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, announced November 26 that India had no problem with China giving nuclear assistance to Pakistan despite U.S. efforts to block any civil nuclear cooperation with the world’s worst proliferator.

In the U.S., none of these events received much press attention (they all happened after Congress recessed for Thanksgiving). Yet, taken together, they make a hash of the White House’s case for pushing unrestricted U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation. Certainly, offering such cooperation is no longer likely to get New Delhi to hedge against a more muscular China or to wean India away from energy and security ties with Iran. Nor does the administration’s claim that it will strengthen nonproliferation and allow the U.S. to deal with India with far less reference to Pakistan seem very credible.

The American public seems to understand this. In a poll released November 28 by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, only 24 percent of the public thinks the nuclear deal will strengthen U.S.-Indian security ties, while 71 percent oppose the deal because it suggests to other countries that they can develop nuclear weapons and get away with it.

Senior Bush-administration officials, however, are acting as though these views don’t count. For them, America’s aim must remain the same — to mollify India’s nuclear bureaucracy. They are already instructing Congress to water down or drop whatever restraints it passed in its enabling nuclear cooperation bills.

Doing so, of course, will require Congress to hold its nose. India never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). It still bars full inspections of its nuclear facilities, broke its pledges not to use earlier U.S. nuclear aid to make bombs, and twice detonated nuclear weapons. India also refuses to stop making nuclear material for bombs (as the first five recognized nuclear-weapons states already have) or to slow its nuclear weapons program down.

Then, there are India’s close security ties with Iran. Back in January of 2003, New Delhi and Tehran signed a strategic cooperation agreement. Joint naval exercises ensued along with Indian naval training of Iranian sailors and the transfer of technology to Iran’s submarine program, India also initiated joint construction of a major Iranian naval facility at Chahbahar (just outside the Strait of Hormuz) and the stationing of Indian intelligence officers at a new Indian consulate sited in Iran adjacent to Pakistan’s rebellious province of Balluchistan. Also, in the last 20 months alone, the U.S. State Department has leveled sanctions against at least seven separate Indian entities that shipped nuclear, chemical weapon and missile related goods to Iran. In each case, the Indian government complained bitterly.

Finally, there is the nonproliferation precedent that the nuclear deal is likely to set. Critics have warned that unless the deal is properly conditioned, it will undermine the very nonproliferation rules Washington is now trying to enforce against Iran (an NPT member that, unlike India, allows full inspection of all of its nuclear facilities). They also wonder how the U.S. can prevent Pakistan and other states (including those in good NPT standing) from demanding similar, lax nuclear inspections as India. Until last week, the standard answer White House officials gave was that the critics’ worries were unfounded, that India was a unique case, and that India’s nonproliferation record was “impeccable.”

At this point, this and arguments that offering generous nuclear cooperation might somehow wean India from Iran and encourage it to act as a counterweight to Beijing seem flaccid or flat-out wrong (a hearing to determine when the State Department first learned of India’s efforts to secure a nuclear agreement with China would certainly prove elucidating).

But watch. Administration officials are more likely to find fault with Congress than with New Delhi. In fact, they are already joining in with Indian officials in objecting to most of the congressionally proposed restrictions on U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation.

These currently include requirements that the White House annually certify that India is backing U.S. sanctions efforts against Iran, that Congress be able to amend the nuclear cooperative agreement that’s finally negotiated with India, that U.S. inspectors assure that U.S. nuclear exports are not diverted or re-exported, and that India have an international nuclear-inspections agreement in force covering its civilian facilities in perpetuity before Congress finalizes U.S. nuclear cooperation. Congress also passed conditions that the U.S. not undermine its own policies against transferring nuclear-fuel-making technology to other nations by providing them to India, that U.S. do its best to persuade nuclear supplier states to suspend nuclear cooperation with India if New Delhi breaks its nuclear- and missile-nonproliferation pledges or its promise not to resume nuclear testing, and that the U.S. Department of Energy establish a cooperative threat-reduction program to help secure and account for Indian nuclear weapons related materials.

All of these provisions are designed to prevent U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation from fanning further proliferation. More important, they will be critical in setting the standard for other states — including Pakistan — that (following India’s explicit welcoming gesture to Chinese-Pakistani nuclear cooperation) are sure to seek similar nuclear treatment from the U.S. and other nuclear suppliers.

This last point is one that China understands. In announcing plans for nuclear assistance to India, President Hu specified that any nuclear cooperation China and India might engage in had to be conducted in a manner “consistent with their respective international commitments” to safeguard “the effectiveness of international non-proliferation principles.” It is now up to Congress to defend those principles. At a minimum, Congress must retain all of the language and conditions for U.S. nuclear cooperation the administration is trying to water down or eliminate. Anything less will only muddy the message that while the U.S. welcomes entering into strategic partnership with India, it will not look the other way if New Delhi cozies up to China, Pakistan, and Iran at America’s expense.

– Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and editor of Weighing the Implications of U.S.-Indian Strategic Cooperation (U.S. Army War College, forthcoming).


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