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Levi: Congress Should Approve U.S.-India Nuclear Accord Conditionally

Interviewee: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change
Author: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 14, 2006

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Michael A. Levi, coauthor of a CFR report on U.S.-India Cooperation, says momentum is building on Capitol Hill for Congress to approve the accord in two steps. The first would be a general "sense of the Congress" vote of support, but the other step would depend on the actual measures taken to ensure nonproliferation is not sabotaged. He says he and Charles D. Ferguson, his coauthor, would not have drafted the agreement the way it stands now, but "the question is where do we go from here?"

You and Charles D. Ferguson have published a CFR report on the U.S.-India nuclear cooperation agreement. Why don't you give us a summary of the basic points.

Let's start by being very clear this is a report by me and Charles Ferguson. This is not a Council on Foreign Relations position. This is what two Council on Foreign Relations fellows think about the U.S.-India nuclear deal. The administration has agreed with India to open nuclear energy—not nuclear weapons—cooperation between the two countries. And India in exchange has made several promises regarding nonproliferation. For the deal to happen, several other pieces have to come into place. Congress has to change its laws, the administration has to negotiate a nuclear cooperation agreement with India, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) needs to adopt a system for inspections within India, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the cartel that controls trade in nuclear technology, needs to change its rules. Our report concludes that this can be a good deal if those four pieces are done right, and this could be a bad deal if those four pieces are done wrong. And the way for Congress to make sure it's done right is to wait until those other parties have acted, and then pass its own legislation if the other agreements are done the right way, and refuse to pass legislation if those other agreements aren't done the right way.

In other words that nuclear cooperation agreement between the U.S. and India doesn't have to be ratified by the Senate?

The administration is currently proposing that Congress have the burden not of approving it, but of rejecting it. That would mean Congress would need sixty-seven votes to stop that agreement from going forward, and it would need to do that within sixty days, so even if those sixty-seven votes were present, leadership could simply delay bringing the agreement to the floor. So effectively Congress would not be able to reject the nuclear cooperation agreement if it had already passed its own legislation enabling nuclear cooperation with India. To retain leverage Congress has to say, "We're going second, we want to see what you've done. If you do it right we'll pass our legislation, if you do it wrong we won't."

Now in the course of the last few months I've interviewed several different people who were familiar with the U.S.-India relationship, including Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state who in the Clinton administration sought to secure a similar agreement. In his interview with me, he came out against the administration's approach. What is it that bothers people from the Clinton administration on this?

Strobe Talbott occupies a position fairly in the center. He would say he had a "dialogue" with India, not a negotiation. India is very prickly about these sorts of things. Look, people like Strobe and others don't like the deal that was made. And Charles Ferguson and I put ourselves in that same camp. We would not have made the deal the way it was made. The administration should have held out longer. India was in a crunch on [its] supply of nuclear fuel, and it is possible the United States could have gotten a better deal. There is fairly wide agreement in the nonproliferation community on that. The question is where do we go from here, and it's a difficult question because rejecting the deal now would have a very different impact from not having made it in the first place, and there is a growing recognition of that. And that's why people at the center in the nonproliferation community recognize we should try to find a way of moving forward on this law, while protecting certain nonproliferation prerogatives. If we can't do that, we shouldn't move forward, but there's a real opportunity to find some sort of accommodation.

Where does the legislation stand now? Has it been formally introduced to Congress?

Some legislation has been formally introduced to Congress, but anything that is going to be approved anytime soon will either have significant amendments to it, or will actually be in a different form. A consensus is growing in Congress around some sort of a two-step approach, just as we have proposed. The debate is now on exactly what the first and second steps will be. Some camps want the first step to essentially approve most of the deal, and the second step to only deal with a small remaining part. Our proposal suggests that most of the deal should be dealt with in the second part. The first part should be about supporting the overall framework but laying down bottom lines for the remainder.

Now in your report you call for simple "sense of the Senate" and "sense of the House" resolutions approving the general framework as a first step?

That's right. These will be nonbinding resolutions but expressions of support for the general framework, which means opening nuclear cooperation with India, India accepting permanent inspections on as many civilian facilities as possible, though not on all of them for the time being, India commitment to a continued moratorium on nuclear testing, a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, and Indian support for strengthened export controls and controls over nuclear materials. We also are clear that the deal does not include a cap on the India nuclear arsenal. That should remain a long-term goal, but it's not going to be accomplished as part of this deal.

You're not as worried about India increasing its number of nuclear weapons as you are about India resuming nuclear testing. Now India has a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing, but it didn't agree to sign a comprehensive test ban treaty, right?

That's right. Ideally it shouldn't be an either/or. But if we are not to effectively end this deal, we're going to have to make some choice. And nuclear testing does have a bigger impact than a slow, continued growth in the Indian nuclear arsenal. Why? First, a gradual increase in the India nuclear arsenal is already expected, and the reaction to it is already built into the policies of its neighbors. Indian nuclear testing, on the other hand, would provoke, or could provoke, both Pakistan and China to react to tests, or could simply provide cover for Pakistan or China to test. Why does that matter? First, it can lead to changes in nuclear doctrine. New and more advanced weapons that are acquired for testing can be used for more aggressive nuclear policy from India. On the Chinese side, new testing could enable it to develop new weapons that would more effectively target the United States. By having cooperation with India that is in turn conditioned on Indian restraint from testing, the United States obtains a new lever to block, to dissuade, India from returning to testing without having to wield the threat of huge, broad economic sanctions that could really hurt Indian economic progress.

Now what are the changes you'd like Congress to legislate?

In its own legislation, we want Congress to hold the line on nuclear testing. We also wanted to add a few things. We wanted to add a moratorium on American transfers of enrichment and reprocessing technology, the two most sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. The Bush administration has a moribund proposal to severely constrain trade in these technologies. It's agreed not to transfer them to India. India has agreed not to transfer those technologies to anyone else, and the United States would do well to formalize that to kick start things. We also want Congress to provide money and legal authority if necessary to work with India to improve its controls on sensitive exports and on nuclear materials. What we also want in tandem with legislation is for Congress to seize the opportunity that's being presented to it and really focus attention on broader nonproliferation issues. There is an immense amount of attention being paid right now to the U.S.-India nuclear deal amongst nonproliferation experts in a very nonpartisan, nonideological way, which is really refreshing, and it's an opportunity to address a whole host of nonproliferation concerns that may be brought up in the context of the nuclear deal but won't be addressed by it, such as the situations in Iran or North Korea.

You don't sympathize with the argument made by some nonproliferation people that by going ahead with this agreement you are giving a green light to Iran?

No we don't. What is the precedent that India is setting? India has a democratic government, good regard for human rights, responsible foreign policy, barely but not perfectly responsible nonproliferation policy. On top of that, it's been punished for thirty-two years for detonating a nuclear explosive. Now, if the leadership is sitting in Iran looking at that precedent, I don't expect the leaders in Iran to say well, we should move forward because if we wait thirty-two years and convert to a democratic government with fundamentally different foreign policy, we'll also get nuclear cooperation. That's not the logic that's going to be happening in Tehran. At the same time there is concern that the U.S.-India nuclear deal might provoke other states to take different approaches to Iran, but there's no evidence of that yet. If you look at all the major states involved in dealing with Iran, and incidentally in dealing with North Korea, their approaches have not been affected by this deal.

Let's ask the other question: what does the United States gain from this agreement?

There are two separate questions there. One is what does the United States gain from the agreement, and the other is what is lost if the agreement is defeated now. The United States gains the removal of a thorn that has existed for decades in the U.S.-India relationship. The nuclear issue has really grated on the relationship, and removing it would help provide an atmosphere where more forward movement can happen. That said, had we delayed a couple more years would it have fundamentally set back the relationship? No. But there is a different question now: what would happen if the deal were rejected? And the difference between this question and the other one is the difference between saying I can't pay for something and bouncing a check. What we're now talking about is bouncing a check with a country that already has in its mind that the United States is not a dependable partner, that it goes back on its commitments, and that it doesn't follow through. And this would simply reinforce that, and reinforce the element of the Indian political spectrum, particularly the Indian left, that is incredibly skeptical of American ability to follow through, and that would hurt. It's not a permanent damage to the relationship just like nothing on the nonproliferation side would be a permanent damage to the nonproliferation regime. It's manageable. There inevitably is going to be some friction out of this. There already is, and there will be more as Congress takes its time, but that's something we'll have to manage in the long term. But a delay is much more manageable than a defeat.

You've been talking on Capitol Hill. Is it your sense that there is a momentum to pass this?

There is a momentum to express some sort of support for the overall framework. I do not see an appetite for Congress giving its final say on this before it has seen the rest of the package. There is too much distrust built between Congress and the administration, and to some lesser extent between Congress and India, for Congress to trust the administration to hold India to a hard line.

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