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Perkovich: U.S.-India Draft Nuclear Agreement Ill-Considered, but Goal of Accommodation with India a Good One

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: George Perkovich, Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
February 24, 2006

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George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a leading expert on India’s nuclear program, applauds the U.S. goal of trying to reach an accommodation with India over its nuclear program. But he says the details in the draft accord, now being worked on in advance of President Bush’s arrival in India next week, were “very under-cooked and not well-considered.”

“The idea of changing the rules to make some accommodation with India was correct,” says Perkovich. “But this particular approach was ill-considered, in essence giving India, or attempting to give India, everything, and to throw out in essence all the rules in return for too little from India. And the reason that you want more from India is to be able to send a signal to the rest of the world that ‘Yes, nonproliferation matters also, and we’re not throwing out the distinctions that have been made between countries that have nuclear weapons and countries that don’t.’”

President Bush heads to India and Pakistan next week. In India, which will be the centerpiece of the trip, he’s hoping to sign an agreement on nuclear sharing, which will require congressional approval. Do you think this agreement will actually come into being this soon?

Certainly the administration and the Indian government in July when they announced the basic outlines hoped and anticipated that by now, yes, they would have been able to clear away the legal issues and actually have something formalized. The proposal ran into a lot more difficulty than either government anticipated, in both countries, interestingly. It ran into considerable opposition in India and a lot of scrutiny in the United States.

What were the problems?

The original proposal was unusually vague, and it left open some really fundamental questions. For example, the administration in July 2005 said that this deal would augment our nuclear nonproliferation objectives. It said the main way this would happen is that for the first time India would designate certain nuclear facilities as civilian, and put those under safeguards by the [UN nuclear watchdog, the] International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]. Many of those facilities aren’t under such safeguards now.

What the administration didn’t nail down was how long would the safeguards be accepted or agreed to by India. In other words, all of the world, except for the five recognized nuclear weapon states, have safeguards forever on a facility. You build a facility, you put it under safeguard, safeguards are there eternally, and safeguards on the fuel and the nuclear material are for eternity.

People asked, “Is this what India’s going to do, when it designates a facility as civilian and puts it under safeguards, is it for eternity?” [Bush] administration leaders kind of shrugged their shoulders. They hadn’t thought of it. The Indians, when first asked, said, “No way, because what we’ve agreed to, and what President Bush has said, was that India now will be treated like all the other advanced nuclear countries, meaning the five recognized with nuclear weapons.” And the dirty little secret is that we five—the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, and France—do not accept safeguards forever. We have voluntary safeguards which say, “Yes, you can come look and inspect it today, but if tomorrow I change my mind, I kick the inspectors out, I take the fuel, and do what I want with it.” And so Congress and others asked the administration, “Well which is it, is it safeguards forever, in which case, OK; if it’s not safeguards forever, you didn’t get anything.” And the administration scratched its collective head and said, “We’re going to have go talk to the Indians about it.”

So what’s happened when we talked to the Indians?

The Indians came up with a formula that was very clever. They said, “Well, we don’t like it, but we’re prepared to accept safeguards on facilities and on fuel as long as you’re prepared to continue providing the fuel. So if you say safeguards forever, that means you have to promise fuel forever.” The United States will never agree to that.

Why is that?

I’ve had this discussion with administration officials. They say, “We will never give up our sovereign right to deny exports to anyone.” This comes up in regard to Iran. In many ways, the key to solving the Iran nuclear problem will be to guarantee Iran sources of fuel from outside of Iranto persuade Iran not to make the fuel themselves. And the Iranians say, “We can’t do that if we’re not going to be guaranteed that fuel supply forever.” And the United States says it will never make that guarantee forever because it may want to impose sanctions if Iran takes hostages again, or what have you. The United States will never give up its right to deny export licenses. And so that same principle would have to hold for India. This is one of those issues that’s still, I think, being hammered out as we speak.

And of course, in India, I gather, there’s a strong nuclear lobby?

In India, you have a strong nuclear establishment, which is a little different from a lobby. In other words, it’s the Department of Atomic Energy, the Atomic Energy Commission, the people who actually wear the white coats and design and build things and get budgets to do that. It’s always been a state within a state. It’s been highly unaccountable. It’s never been subjected to international scrutiny or competition. They were seen as the avatars of modernity and brilliance, the real symbols of great technological prowess, and so they have been powerful over the years, and also, immune from economic accountability and pressure. It’s a paradox. On one hand, the nuclear experts realize that, finally, all of the promises they’ve made about providing nuclear energy for decades always come up woefully short; that they’re never going to meet the country’s energy needs without significant international cooperation.

You mean they don’t have enough sources of uranium?

They don’t have enough sources of uranium to fuel the kind of first-generation nuclear reactors they would need to meet energy requirements for the short term or even the next two decades. So there’s a physical limit because of the fuel. There’s a technological limit because their programs always kind of run behind in terms of the size of its reactors and its general capability.

Now, they’re improving that a lot, but they can’t build enough reactors soon enough to meet the country’s energy targets. So where that leads is that, for a combination of both fuel needs and reactor needs, they’re going to have to turn to international cooperation. Now they have a grand plan that they’ve had since the 1940s, which is to be the only country which relies on a totally different kind of fuel, which is a thorium-based fuel, because India has an abundance of thorium in its sand, in its soil. The problem is that the thorium fuel cycle is always fifty years away.

So did the Indians come to the United States first?

They have been coming to us for many, many years, saying, “You want better relations, the No. 1 issue has been to open up for nuclear cooperation, end the different kinds of sanctions.” So they’ve been hammering on this for decades. Yes, they came to us saying we want fully open nuclear cooperation. Modestly, they would have settled for fuel right now, but they wanted everything. And then this administration, unlike others, for a variety of reasons said, “Let’s give them everything.”

If we reached an agreement, this would allow American companies like GE [General Electric] or Westinghouse to build reactors for them?

Yes, that’s right. [It would be an agreement] to build reactors, to supply nuclear fuel, to engage in full-scale civilian cooperation in facilities under IAEA safeguards. And this is what requires a change inU.S.law. Also, if the United States were to be faithful to the international rules that it helped establish, we would have to persuade the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which is a cartel of nuclear technology suppliers, to change their rules, which also bar this kind of full cooperation with countries that don’t have all of their facilities under IAEA safeguards. And so the president promised that in addition to changing our laws, he would try to change the Nuclear Supplier Group guidelines, to make what we want to do consistent with the rules. That would open up the Indian sector to cooperation from France, Japan, and anybody else with which India would want to do business.

The question to me is why did India ever set off those bombs in 1998 that led to its problems?

From their point of view, it was: “We’re going to set off these bombs because, like the United States and China and other great powers we need nuclear weapons, and we face a rising China that’s been noted by the United States as a potential major power with which we have a border dispute. They have nuclear weapons targeted at us; we’re going to need demonstrable nuclear weapon capability. Pakistan has nuclear weapons and is engaged in violence with us.” But at least as important as that was the view: “Look, the countries with nuclear weapons get treated like great powers in this world and the countries that talk about morality and disarmament, as India has for forty years, get dismissed, they get laughed at. And so we are going to speak the language that the United States and China and others respect, which is the language of assertiveness, of military strength and defiance, and so we’re going to defy these rules, and we’re going to blast the tests and you’ll want to sanction us, you’ll do it for a while, but eventually, you’re going to have to accept us as a great power.” That’s why they did it.

And they’re turning out more or less right, aren’t they?

That’s why this is controversial for a lot of people. The administration’s view is, in essence, “Yes, we should admit they were right, and the world has changed, and we all are in a contest with China, and India sits in an interesting place on the map. So let’s change these rules and recognize thatIndiais a great power and treat it as such.”

You’ve written a book about India’s nuclear program. What do you think about this pending U.S.-Indian agreement? Is it a good one, or is it not?

I think this particular agreement was very under-cooked and not well-considered; very important details were omitted, but the idea of changing the rules to make some accommodation with India was correct. But this particular approach was ill-considered, in essence giving India, or attempting to giveIndia, everything, and to throw out in essence all the rules in return for too little fromIndia.

What do we need from India?

The safeguards that India puts on facilities it designates as civilian should be permanent. That’s key. The number of facilities that India designates civilian as opposed to military should be very high. In other words, they could turn around and say, “You know, half the program is civilian, you can put safeguards on it, but the other half we’re calling military and no one’s ever going to go near it.” And that would be kind of a travesty in terms of diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in the world. So there’s that issue.

But the biggest issue, and where the administration neglected things, was the world already has much too much raw material, highly enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons. And the United States, France, Great Britain, and Russia have stopped producing plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. We believe that China has also stopped producing but they’ve never announced it or formalized it. And it is a high priority of much of the world to have everybody in the world stop making additional materials for nuclear bombs.

Now the Indians claim they need to be able to produce fissile material because they only have a minimum stockpile, right?

Well, they say several things. They started late, comparatively, and they have a small stockpile, but all they ever want is a minimum credible deterrent, they say, but they never define it. And I think the administration, and much of the criticism the administration faces, is that in essence, this deal not only blesses that India has nuclear weapons—and that’s something I think is natural and unavoidable and we should just go ahead and accept—but they’ve blessed the idea that India has nuclear weapons and is going to continue to make more of them, and that’s the part that I think is objectionable, and I think at this time our position should be nobody should be making any more nuclear weapons, period.

Now if Bush gets to Indiaand there is no agreement to sign, is that a terrible disaster in the relations?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it should be a medium or long-term disaster if it isn’t signed, but secondly, if it were, then it proves all the claims about the relationship are a lie anyway. In other words, champions of the deal, in many ways say we should make this deal to demonstrate that the U.S.-India relationship is so strategically important, that we have so much in common, we share such values, we’re such natural allies, that we want to reflect that in this deal. Now, if you turn around and then say, “But if you don’t do this deal somehow we’re going to be adversaries or there’s going to be no relationship,” then you were lying about the relationship that you say the deal was reflecting. So how could a nuclear cooperation deal carry that much freight?

Is Pakistan going to try to get the same thing, or is that just out of the question?

They’re going to try to get the same thing and it should be out of the question.

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