Fissile Isn't Facile
As U.S. officials prepare for President Bush's visit to New Delhi next month, they must resist making a proposed civilian nuclear cooperation deal the primary theme of future relations with India, or one that requires immediate agreement. Indeed, failing to get this nuclear deal right could not only encumber improved U.S.-India relations, but aggravate the very security threats -- Iran's nuclear ambitions and China's growing strategic weapons capabilities -- that we are seeking India's help to mitigate.
First, a synopsis: President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced in July their desire to formalize a nuclear cooperative agreement as soon as possible, under which the U.S. would supply India with civilian nuclear technology. India would place its civilian nuclear facilities (but not its nuclear weapons program) under international monitoring and would continue a moratorium on nuclear testing. The top U.S. diplomat involved, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, took the nuclear amity a step further. In October, he predicted that the White House would be in a position to ask Congress to pass legislation authorizing Indian-U.S. nuclear cooperation "by the time of President Bush's visit." That prospect, however, no longer looks bright. After what the Indian press described as "failed" consultations in New Delhi on Jan. 19 and 20, Mr. Burns warned that "We will have to see if we can be successful. . . . But there are difficulties ahead."
What happened? Two things. First, Mr. Burns asked India to refer Iran's nuclear misbehavior to the U.N. at the planned International Atomic Energy Agency meeting of Feb. 2. On this, India demurred: "We will not like to see a situation of confrontation developing in a region that is very close to India," India's foreign secretary said. A week later, the U.S. ambassador in New Delhi, David Mulford, warned that the deal would "die" if India failed to refer Iran to the U.N. The Indian Foreign Ministry reacted by threatening to abstain. Once China and Russia agreed with the U.S. and the Europeans to refer the Iranian nuclear matter to the U.N., however, New Delhi changed tack, supporting amendments that deleted use of the words "noncompliance" or "referral" to assure that the resolution served what India's foreign ministry described as India's "national interests."
These interests were highlighted in a strategic cooperation agreement India struck with Tehran in January 2003. Prime among them is Iranian energy. Late last year, India contracted directly with Tehran for over $5 billion in natural gas and is still interested in buying gas from a proposed $7 billion pipeline that would be built through Pakistan. India also is reported to refine nearly 40% of Iran's domestic gasoline and is a major importer of Iranian oil.
India also is engaged in defense cooperation with Iran, training Iran's navy, supplying military goods, and sharing advanced technology. Since September 2004, the U.S. has sanctioned four private Indian entities for nuclear and chemical transfers to Iran. Finally, Iran is helping funnel Indian aid to Afghanistan to fend off Islamic discontent that otherwise might march south into Kashmir. India, of course, would like to continue this collaboration and secure U.S. nuclear cooperation.
The second troubling request Mr. Burns made was that New Delhi open up its current and planned fast breeder reactors to international inspections. These machines are notoriously uneconomical for generating electricity. They are, however, by far the most efficient nuclear producers of weapons-usable plutonium. The Indians are completing a breeder capable of producing 500 megawatts of electricity (and scores of weapons' worth of plutonium annually). India's nuclear establishment is insistent that it be kept off the civilian roster.
How have U.S. negotiators coped with this and the other technical-legal problems these nuclear talks have generated? Not well. Despite official contentions that a deal would limit the potential size of India's nuclear arsenal, our negotiators have quietly grandfathered nearly nine tons of weapons-usable plutonium in spent fuel that India has already produced in its "civilian" reactors. This is enough material for roughly 2,000 weapons. They also winked at India's clear violation of its pledge to the U.S. not to use a reactor it imported from Canada with U.S. help to make bombs: India used this plant to make its first explosive device in 1974. The U.S. is now willing to let India count it as a military production plant.
All of this has the Pakistanis flustered. They thought they had enough nuclear weapons to keep India in check. With the nuclear fuel the nuclear deal will allow India to import, though, India may be able to dedicate more of its domestic nuclear resources to making bombs. As a hedge, Pakistan has appealed to China for more "civilian" nuclear assistance of its own and received a pledge for six to eight additional reactors. China presumably would seek to bend international nuclear rules forbidding such sales to a non-NPT weapons state along the lines the U.S. is seeking for India. China is also fuming. Officials there have told U.S. visitors that Washington can forget getting Beijing's help to sanction Iran as long as India is to be cut loose with the proposed nuclear deal.
India and China signed a strategic cooperation agreement last April, which locks China in as India's largest commercial partner for the next 15 years. Yet with the hawkish nuclear rumblings the U.S. nuclear deal is stirring in India, China has warned India that the U.S. nuclear cooperation may "undermine global disarmament moves" -- i.e., China may now hedge its bets by augmenting its own strategic weapons efforts. And Iran? It's been making hay of Washington's generosity toward India, accusing the U.S. of backing nuclear "double standards."
None of these developments are what Mr. Bush had in mind last July when he promised India nuclear assistance. So what should he do? First, stop pressuring India to vote precisely as the U.S. might on Iran. Given that Russia rather than India is the key to securing international consensus on Iran, we should urge India not to side with Iran but tolerate its abstaining if it stops seeking government-to-government energy deals with Tehran. These deals in the long-run are far more important than any U.N. vote. They transfer billions of dollars and constitute an unnecessary vote of confidence that keeps the mullahs in power. Here, U.S.-India security should oblige India to secure its energy needs through private firms on the open world market.
Second, our diplomats need to recalibrate what our nuclear cooperation is trying to accomplish. India needs U.S. help to secure fresh, affordable foreign supplies of nuclear fuel to keep its civilian reactors running. If we want to keep this aid from freeing up India's domestic nuclear resources to make more bombs, though, we have to get serious about India capping its nuclear weapons program. Officials claim this would be a "deal breaker." Yet, Under Secretary of State Robert Joseph noted last month that the U.S. ought to "seek additional nonproliferation results" in "separate discussions." Here, the administration would do well to specify what results it is seeking and time their achievement with the signing of any U.S. nuclear cooperative agreement with India.
Finally, given Pakistan's fears and China's declarations, it would be wise to involve Beijing and Islamabad. They, after all, are the key reasons India has nuclear weapons. One idea would be to urge them all to do as all other nuclear weapons state members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- the U.S., Russia, France and the U.K. -- have already done: publicly forswear making fissile material for military purposes and freeze or reduce the number of nuclear weapons they deploy. To be sure, this may slow things down. But it runs a far greater risk of avoiding the growing downsides of our current course, which looks to be in an embarrassing slog towards getting things wrong.