U.S.-India pact recognizes reality of nuclear politics

The newest member of the nuclear club will also gain a stake in nonproliferation, observes Pantech Fellow and San Jose Mercury News foreign affairs columnist Daniel C. Sneider

The nuclear deal reached during President Bush's recent visit to India unleashed a predictable wave of criticism. From editorial and op-ed pages to Congress, led by the left but supported on the right, the administration has been assailed for making a bad bargain.

Under the agreement, which still needs congressional approval, India would open much of its nuclear facilities to international inspections in return for gaining access to the world's supplies of uranium and U.S. nuclear expertise.

The attacks on the deal reflect the view of the nonproliferation lobby -- the experts and policymakers whose central concern is to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. I share their aim. But American arguments against the India deal are misleading and only expose the deep contradictions, if not hypocrisy, of our own nuclear policies.

There are two main criticisms of the agreement: first, it undermines the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the NPT, and second, it permits, even encourages, India to expand its nuclear weapons production.

The NPT issue is particularly sensitive at a time when the international community is trying to persuade Iran to give up certain nuclear technologies which many nations fear are part of a secret bomb program.

The NPT created two sets of global rules -- one for the five nuclear weapons powers it recognizes (China, the United States, Russia, Britain and France) and another for everyone else. The five, for example, allow only "voluntary'' international safeguards on their civilian nuclear facilities. They have no obligation to open their military programs to any kind of scrutiny. And the NPT places no real limits on their arsenals, other than a vague commitment to reduce and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons.

The rest must open their nuclear energy programs fully to international inspection and agree never to build bombs. In exchange, they gain access to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Iran -- and North Korea -- made that bargain and can be held to account for breaking the rules. But India consistently regarded that as an unequal trade-off and never signed the NPT; neither did Pakistan and Israel, two other nuclear weapons states.

India's nuclear program is the product of decades of largely indigenous effort; it did not result from secretive proliferation in violation of the NPT.

The deal with India turns the five into six. It treats India as a de facto member of the inner club. The deal would require changes in U.S. law to remove existing restrictions on the transfer of nuclear energy technology, changes that would allow India to be treated no differently from China.

That does not weaken the NPT -- it strengthens it. It brings it more into accord with reality and gives India a stake in a system it had previously rejected as unfair. It paves the way for India to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the international organization that controls nuclear exports.

The critics are right that the deal enables India to expand its production of fissile materials to make nuclear warheads. Eight of India's 22 power reactors will remain outside international controls, along with a new breeder reactor. The Indians fought for that exemption because they feel their nuclear arsenal may not be large enough to deter a nuclear first strike by Pakistan or China in the future. Critics fear that with increased access to uranium and limited inspections, India will set off an arms race in South Asia.

Again, the agreement simply treats India like the five. Nonproliferation experts claim that unlike India, however, the five have halted their production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium that could be used to build new weapons. This is true, but misleading.

The five have massive stockpiles of fissile material built up during the Cold War. "If I've got a full pantry, it's easy for me to swear off trips to the supermarket,'' said Michael Levi, an arms-control expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Moreover, the United States has embarked on a new program to rebuild its nuclear weapons production capability, including creating new facilities to produce plutonium cores for warheads and to assemble them.

India has agreed to back a global pact to cut off fissile-material production. But the Bush administration does not support a treaty that would actually verify this is taking place. And the U.S. Senate has refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that would permanently halt any new testing of nuclear weapons.

A Congress that can support those policies is hardly in a position to challenge the administration's agreement with India. Rather than block the U.S.-India deal, it makes more sense to improve it. This could include reaching agreements for cooperation between the two countries to ensure the safety and security of nuclear facilities, including those for military purposes, suggested Stanford Professor Scott D. Sagan, a leading expert on nuclear safety and nonproliferation. "Reducing the risk of terrorist theft of nuclear materials or weapons in India would also help protect the United States,'' argues Sagan.

Beyond that, the six acknowledged nuclear powers should begin to seriously fulfill their part of the NPT bargain -- to cap fissile-material production, to ban nuclear testing, and to eventually radically reduce stored arsenals of nuclear weapons and materials.