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Were the consequences not so grave, attempts by the high priests worshipping at the altar of nuclear weapons to denounce as heretics any others who aspire to join their sect would be amusing

Special to Globe and Mail Update

The India-U.S. nuclear co-operation deal signed in July, 2004, was consummated during President George W. Bush's first visit to India in March of last year. Washington agreed to share civilian nuclear technology with New Delhi in return for an agreement not to export nuclear weapons technology, to maintain the moratorium on testing, to separate military and civilian nuclear programs and to subject those parts of the latter receiving international assistance to a rigorous inspection regime.

The U.S. House of Representatives vote in favour of the deal was 359-68, followed by an equally lopsided 85-12 vote in the Senate. Yet the deal now seems to be in trouble. India's top foreign-policy bureaucrat has rushed to Washington to assuage publicly expressed U.S. frustrations and salvage the accord.

Given the distribution of media power, Washington has found it easier to project its viewpoints to the world press. (Belated criticism centres on India's right to process spent fuel, something India says it needs only for civilian use, while U.S. critics say they fear it being used to generate plutonium for weapons.) India and the United States negotiated a package deal. Congress rewrote parts of that to bring the agreement into line with existing U.S. laws even while exempting India from some key U.S. policies. Rather than accept Congressional unilateralism with respect to a carefully negotiated deal that remains controversial, however, Delhi has sought to revert to the original package. Any significant departure from that would be politically suicidal for India's minority government.

The basic problem stems from a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the non-proliferation regime that is coming to a head. Does the central threat to security lie in the weapons themselves or in the nature of the regimes that have the weapons?

If it is the weapons, there should be equally determined efforts to eliminate them through a universal nuclear weapons convention. Discriminating between India, Iran, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan on the one hand (the countries that have not signed the non-proliferation treaty) and Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States (those that are NPT-licit), on the other, makes no sense. If the problem is the nature of the regimes and their past proliferation record and relations with the United States, then discriminating between the two classes of countries makes a lot of sense.

In neither case is India the problem. Rather, the problem is the refusal to confront the reality of India as a nuclear power and, instead, to fudge it so that India is -and, yet, it is not acknowledged as - a nuclear power. Thus the incredible convolutions that yes, an exemption should be made for India but, no, it is not be admitted into the sacred membership of the nuclear club. Were the consequences not so grave, attempts by the high priests worshipping at the altar of nuclear weapons to denounce as heretics any others who aspire to join their sect would be amusing.

Meant to give effect to an emerging strategic partnership between the world's most powerful and populous democracies, the India-U.S. deal has been criticized in both countries for conceding too much to the interests and sensitivity of the other.

Indian critics charge it will impose conditions on India's nuclear weapons options not required of the five NPT-licit countries. India will be restricted to subcontinental status when its strategic frame of reference is continental. It will also be locked into nuclear energy generated by imported reactors when it should be looking to greater diversity of energy security at affordable cost, including its own hydroelectric and coal reserves. Critics also question the reliability and consistency of U.S. assurances, demands and promises, especially in the face of American domestic and congressional criticism.

U.S. critics charge that in being accepted openly into the club of nuclear powers, India is being rewarded for bad behaviour. The argument is double-edged. India had the capacity and U.S. intelligence expected it to acquire nuclear weapons before the NPT was signed in 1968 and join the nuclear club from the start. To keep India out now, one could say, is to punish it for good behaviour for three decades.

Does the deal undermine efforts to check proliferation-sensitive activities and programs by others such as Iran and North Korea? Only if we ignore history and geopolitics. All countries of proliferation concern have been under watch for many decades. The only country for which India is the key benchmark in driving nuclear-weapons policy is Pakistan, which has already crossed the threshold. Tehran's nuclear calculus has more to do with the presence of nuclear powers in its neighbourhood, perceived U.S. hostility, the deployment of U.S. forces around it, and opposition to Israel's very existence. Pyongyang has had proliferation links with China and Pakistan, not India.

The India-U.S. deal seeks to make the best of a bad and increasingly untenable status quo. It has been endorsed by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, on grounds of nuclear safety, energy security, consolidation of the NPT regime and checks on nuclear terrorism. India and the United States signed the deal not out of charity but because they believed it to be in their national interests. If elements of the deal are changed and the balance-of-interest calculation shifts, the deal will collapse. On balance, both sides and the world will be the poorer for that.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.