Debate Over US-India Nuclear Policy Shift Continues

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - An agreement by Washington to resume civilian nuclear cooperation with India, an emerging key ally, continues to make waves, while in India itself the response has been mixed.

Some Indian observers view Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's achievement as highly significant, paving the way to expanding energy supplies to India's fast-growing economy -- as well as a de facto acknowledgment by the U.S. of India's status as a nuclear weapons power.

Others regard it as a sell-out that is not in India's strategic interests.

The agreement announced on July 18 by President Bush and Singh set the stage for a resumption of nuclear cooperation which the U.S. suspended after India first tested a nuclear device in 1974.

In 1998 both India and its neighboring rival, Pakistan, carried out successful underground nuclear weapons tests, confirming their capability but in the process drawing strong international reaction and sanctions.

U.S. and international law still regard both India and Pakistan as a non nuclear-weapons states.

But Bush undertook to work with Congress and with other governments to amend domestic polices and international treaties, to enable the U.S. to achieve "full civil nuclear cooperation with India."

In turn, Singh pledged to take specified steps, including identifying which nuclear facilities were military, which were civilian, and separating the two programs.

India also would voluntarily place its civilian facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, allow IAEA inspections, maintain its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, and not transfer sensitive nuclear technology to states that do not already have it.

The deal does not require India to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The treaty prohibits countries other than the five declared nuclear powers -- the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia -- from developing nuclear weapons in exchange for getting financial and technical help in developing civilian nuclear energy programs.

Debate continues to simmer in India over various aspects of the agreement, especially the requirement to separate the military and civilian programs. Some experts charge that that undertaking would be prohibitively expensive as well as complicated, given that India has few dedicated military facilities, relying on the civilian ones for fissile material.

Some scientists voiced concern that the requirements would hamper research and dramatically escalate the cost of the nuclear weapons program.

Allowing IAEA safeguards "goes against the national interest," atomic scientist A.N. Prasad was quoted as saying.

Senior political analyst C. Raja Mohan disagreed.

"To forgo the opportunity of expansive civilian nuclear cooperation with the world ... by raising abstract fears about long overdue separation of civil and military programs, would involve stupendous short-sightedness on the part of India's nuclear managers," he wrote in the Indian Express.

Also describing the deal as good for India was Dr. K. Santhanam, coordinator of the country's successful 1998 nuclear weapons tests.

Some political opposition also emerged to the deal, and its requirement that India continue its unilateral moratorium on further tests - a pledge some domestic critics worried could entail a loss of "sovereignty."

The Communist Party, an important coalition ally in Singh's Congress Party-led government, claimed the agreement compromised India's independent nuclear policy and marked an unwelcome "pro-U.S. shift."

'Sweeping reversal of policy'

In the U.S., critics have characterized the move as another example of the Bush administration's disdain for international treaties and institutions.

It was "a step toward a breakdown in the international nonproliferation regime," said Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and a deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration.

"The administration -- taking its lead from the president himself -- tends to see the world in black-and-white, good-versus-evil terms," Talbott wrote in an article published on the Yale Global website.

"That view has translated into a nonproliferation policy that cuts extra slack for 'good' countries, like India, while cracking down on 'bad' ones - in other words, rogue states like North Korea and Iran."

Miriam Rajkumar of the Carnegie Endowment's Non-Proliferation Project called the decision a "sweeping reversal of U.S. and international nuclear policy."

"The declaration reflects the Bush Administration's general low regard for formal treaties and regimes, and its view that nuclear proliferation is not all bad - and some may even be beneficial," she said.

Crucially, however, support for the policy shift came from the IAEA itself. The head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, said India's pledges on IAEA safeguards and inspections was a welcome development.

"I have always advocated concrete and practical steps towards the universal application of IAEA safeguards," he said, and urged all countries using nuclear energy to apply the highest safety standards possible.

"Out-of-the-box thinking and active participation by all members of the international community are important if we are to advance nuclear arms control, non-proliferation, safety and security, and tackle new threats such as illicit trafficking in sensitive nuclear technology and the risks of nuclear terrorism," ElBaradei said.

Although the agreement does not require India to sign the NPT, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told a press briefing the controls to which India agreed were practically the same as those for treaty signatories.

"Obviously, it's the wish of the United States that all countries will join the Non-Proliferation Treaty," he said. "India has not made a decision to do that."

"So we deal with a situation where a partner of ours, a friendly country, a very large country with significant energy needs, is willing now to commit itself to undertake all of the quite-invasive measures to safeguard its facilities," Burns said.

"That is a benefit, not just for the United States, it's a benefit for the non-proliferation community."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow