Indian Gambling

George W. Bush is so concerned that weapons of mass destruction will fall into the wrong hands that he's going to roll back the entire global nonproliferation regime -- 50 years in the making -- so we can sleep safe at night.

Last month, amid great fanfare, he announced his latest move: a new agreement with India that would not only increase trade and investment between the United States and the world's largest democracy -- American markets will now be open to Indian mangos for the first time -- but will also provide India with U.S. nuclear technology and fuel for its civilian nuclear energy program.

In exchange, India, which has refused to sign the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has been a nuclear pariah since testing its first a-bomb in 1974, agreed to separate its civilian and military nuclear programs and allow the IAEA to inspect facilities on the civilian side (14 of the country's 22 existing reactors). According to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service, India will have ultimate discretion over which sites are considered military and which are civilian.

The administration argues that the deal represents a breakthrough achievement in President Bush's new Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), an ambitious plan that would limit the most vulnerable stages of the nuclear fuel cycle -- uranium enrichment and the disposal of enriched uranium waste -- to a limited number of sites in the United States and Russia (and perhaps other members of the nuclear club like France). Never mind that we don't know what to do with our own nuclear fuel waste.

For the dwindling number of Bush supporters, the Indian deal is a brilliant geostrategic move. It takes India out of the competition for the world's remaining oil supplies, increases nuclear fuel security by putting international controls on more than half of India's reactors, throws some business at American nuclear energy firms -- especially GE (reactors) and the United States Enrichment Corp. (fuel) -- and discourages India from procuring nuclear materials from other sources in the future (like Iran).

But the deal doesn't adhere to either U.S. law or the patchwork of treaties and institutions that make up the international nonproliferation regime. Bush's policy of keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of bad guys will set back nuclear nonproliferation by a generation.

The grand bargain that's supported the Non Proliferation Treaty since its inception in 1968 is simple: The hundred plus states that signed on agree to forgo nuclear weapons in exchange for nuclear security and the promise that the countries of the nuclear club will disarm. It was understood by the parties that nuclear weapons are a menace to humankind regardless of what governments own them. The more nukes there are kicking around, the stronger the likelihood that one will go off, whether in the heat of a conflict or by accident.

In 1995 and 2000, the 187 countries in the NPT met in a series of major international conferences in New York to reaffirm their commitment to the treaty. At the time, the United States joined the rest of the "nuclear club" in promising, again, the "unequivocal undertaking" to eliminate its nuclear arsenal.

As soon as he was elected, George W. Bush renounced those commitments. We need the nukes because we're the good guys, went the rationale. The administration pulled out of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty at the same time (although a moratorium is in effect).

With a series of moves capped off by the deal with India, Bush has now renounced the central idea that "the proliferation of nuclear weapons" itself, as the NPT reads, "would seriously enhance the danger of nuclear war." The administration wants a new order where Washington decides -- without objective criteria -- which countries are worthy of nuclear technology and which ones are not. India's nuclear program -- which U.S. policy makers have condemned since the mid 1970s -- is fine. Pakistan's is fine. Israel's, no problem. Iran? No way.

That may not seem so bad on the surface, but it sends the worst possible message: All those years of complaints that the NPT was a discriminatory treaty set up by the powerful to keep the powerless from creating an even playing field have been proved right by George Bush. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a nonproliferation vet -- told PBS's News Hour, that the deal "blows a hole through any attempts in the future that we could make to convince the Pakistanis, or the Iranians, or the North Koreans, or for that matter any other country in world that might interested in obtaining nuclear weapons, that there is a level playing field, that there is a real set of safeguards."

India never signed the NPT, which makes its nuclear arsenal a gray area; it has every right to have one, but the rest of the NPT signers aren't supposed to sell them nuclear technology that can go into weapons production (The plutonium for India's first weapons came from a Canadian reactor, using U.S. fuel that India had promised to use only for peaceful purposes).

George Perkovich, vice president for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, put it like this in a recent article in Foreign Affairs:

To administration radicals such as Robert Joseph (the National Security Council's senior counterproliferation official), Douglas Feith (undersecretary of defense), John Bolton (undersecretary of state), and Stephen Cambone (principal deputy undersecretary of defense), nuclear weapons per se are not the problem -- "bad guys" with them are. Rejecting the fundamental premise of the NPT, these officials seek not to create an equitable global regime that actively devalues nuclear weapons and creates conditions for their eventual elimination, but rather to eradicate the bad guys or their weapons while leaving the "good guys" free of nuclear constraints.
In order to discourage the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, we're destroying the international framework that we ourselves designed to discourage the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Perkovich adds that at the same time the "nonproliferation radicals" in the administration recognize "that the good guys of today can become the bad guys of tomorrow" and argue that therefore the United States "must retain and 'upgrade' an enormous strategic arsenal forever to deter or defeat any adversary." That doesn't give a lot of incentive for other states to consider disarming.

The Indian deal would also violate U.S. law, notably the 1954 Atomic Energy Act which precludes U.S. firms from selling nuclear technology to countries that aren't monitored by the IAEA. To the "nonproliferation radicals," domestic law represents dangerous "pre-9/11 thinking," and the administration is now pressuring Congress to rewrite the law to allow the deal to go through or to give them a waiver on it.

The deal also runs up against the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the coalition of 45 countries that produce nuclear materials. Members of the group agreed to ban nuclear technology sales to countries that don't allow international inspections of their nuclear sites. The Washington Post reported that the Bush administration has "already decided it will not seek approval from the Nuclear Suppliers Group … until it wins congressional approval."

The irony is that it was the U.S. that started the group in 1975 as a response to India's first nuclear weapons tests in 1974.

Some members of the group were briefed on the deal informally in Vienna and, according to the Post, "the reaction was "'skeptical and tough.'" The nuclear suppliers group functions on a consensus basis; if the deal passes Congress and members object, it will likely spell the end of the coordinating body, another cornerstone in the world's nonproliferation framework.

Indian analysts are concerned with another aspect of the deal: They're suspicious that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh got taken in the deal. Editorials have been highlighting the steep price of uranium, which has tripled in the past few years. Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, told Reuters, "The deal will help revive the decrepit U.S. nuclear power industry but slow down India's own search for energy security." He warned of creating a new dependency on the West: "Those pushing the deal fight shy of discussing the economics of generating electricity from high-priced imported reactors dependent on imported fuel," he said. "Creating a new Indian dependency on imports is not a path to energy security."

When Congress returns from its Easter break, it will take up the deal again. Democrats Joe Biden and John Kerry -- key minority members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- have said, characteristically, that while they don't like the deal, they'll probably support it anyway.

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