Unilateral Concessions

Last week?s nuclear deal with India would overturn three decades of bipartisan policy and create new nuclear risks?for virtually nothing in return.

| Fri Mar. 10, 2006 4:00 AM EST

Article created by the The Century Foundation.

Last week’s nuclear deal with India would overturn three decades of bipartisan policy and create new nuclear risks—for virtually nothing in return. The deal is flawed on grounds of both principle and pragmatism. On the first count, it unilaterally subverts the international framework that has, with much success, governed nuclear cooperation. The deal would cloud the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at a time when negotiations with Iran and North Korea remain heated.

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In practical terms, it will most likely lead to a world with more nuclear weapons and materials in India and Pakistan, where they are particularly vulnerable to theft or diversion by terrorists.The deal, announced last Thursday (reportedly without consultations with Congress or review by nuclear experts in the Departments of State, Defense, or Energy) would provide India with substantial, and most likely permanent, nuclear assistance. Before going into effect it will require changes in United States law and in rules governing the Nuclear Supplier’s Group.

The agreement would violate long-standing international law prohibiting assistance to another nation’s nuclear weapon program. The deal is ostensibly for “civilian nuclear cooperation” but explicitly opens a loophole for India to place some of its reactors, including prototype “fast breeder reactors” capable of producing large amounts of weapons-grade material, outside of international oversight.

The net result is that India can use the new “civilian” nuclear assistance from the United States to free up its scarce uranium reserves for its military program. The Carnegie Endowment’s Joseph Cirincione estimates that India ’s production capacity would rise from around eight nuclear bombs per year to several dozen.

The United States cannot cut deals with India without repercussions. Any change in the size and posture of India’s nuclear arsenal will force Pakistan to reassess its own nuclear force. China has reportedly started discussions with Pakistan over open nuclear assistance, a practice that U.S. diplomatic pressure helped halt a decade ago. And Russia may well contemplate a similar deal with Iran.

Even if the deal had no military implications it would not be without risks. While the deal offers monitoring of civilian nuclear sites, these mechanisms are hardly watertight. A. Q. Khan’s black market network showed how civilian controls could be undermined by careless and unscrupulous middlemen. Significantly, he garnered materials and know-how from Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, countries with strong rule of law and anti-corruption statutes. If illicit diversion could occur in Germany, it could most certainly occur in India. More widespread use of nuclear power—especially with spotty inspections—makes diversion more likely. The best defense against nuclear terrorism is to ensure that existing weapons-usable material (especially in the former Soviet Union, but also in India and Pakistan) is secure and that no new material is being produced. The package does nothing to address the former and actively undermines the latter.

What does the United States gain to offset these costs? Remarkably little. Even the deal’s proponents must know that the effect on proliferation cannot be positive.

Ultimately, the agreement only makes sense in light of the administration’s view of Asia’s trajectory. The package of benefits simultaneously strengthens America’s ties with India and provides an emerging ally with assets—greater energy independence and a larger latent nuclear arsenal—that strengthen its position vis à vis China. Regardless of India’s oft-repeated claims that it wants no part in America’s grand strategy to contain China, the United States has cast it in that role. Facilitating a robust Indian nuclear arsenal is consistent with this aim.

The administration’s underlying premise is that arms control is unverifiable, and therefore more or less irrelevant. That’s why it has shunned the biological weapons convention and avoided a fissile material cut-off treaty despite its concerns over WMD proliferation. Never mind that over the past decade the International Atomic Energy Agency has compiled an excellent track record of detecting and deterring nuclear malfeasance, most recently in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Libya. The administration’s view is that arms-control treaties, even where they confer benefits, should not trump “hard power” considerations. The India deal, by this reasoning, is as a win-win: it both strengthens a new ally and circumvents a dispensable treaty.

Congress, which along with the Nuclear Suppliers Group remains the only brake on the deal, doesn’t see things quite the same way. Some Republican Congressional leaders, including Senators Frist and Warner, have expressed cautious support, but others are more skeptical. Senator Richard Lugar, the Senate’s most respected voice on nuclear issues, has already submitted more than 80 questions about the deal. Senator Biden, generally supportive of engaging India, has indicated concerns as well.

By taking a hard line, Congress can avert this deal and hold out for a better one. While it is politically impractical to integrate India into the NPT, a parallel agreement could subject India’s nuclear program to the same scrutiny and security as the 170 NPT signatories. The central principle of such a parallel regime should be that undeclared states be permitted the same benefits of the NPT in return for the same responsibilities.

In practice, each of the nuclear weapons states has full-scope civilian inspections, observes a moratorium on production of fissile material, has signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (China and the US have not ratified), has observed a testing moratorium, and has committed to eventual nuclear disarmament. If India were to commit to the same set of restraints its eligibility for the treaty’s benefits should be open to discussion.

That is not the governing principle of the new deal. It resembles instead a set of unilateral concessions by America to a new ally. Congress should refuse to ratify any agreement that fails to address the breeder reactor loophole. The United States—for principled reasons stretching back three decades and for pragmatic reasons that are more relevant now than ever—should not provide nuclear assistance to any country that is not verifiably committed to using that assistance only for peaceful purposes. If the deal cannot be reformed it should be jettisoned and the parties should return to the negotiating table.

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