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Riedel: Delay on U.S.-Indian Nuclear Accord Only a ‘Hiccup’ On Road to Stronger Ties

Interviewee: Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 17, 2007

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Bruce Riedel, a longtime CIA official who served as a senior adviser to three U.S. presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues, says the decision by India’s prime minister not to force a vote in the Indian parliament on the U.S.-India nuclear deal was “quite a tragedy for India, because almost anyone who’s studied this deal believes India got a very, very good deal out of this.” He says that even though the agreement may be in “cold storage,” he believes it is only a “hiccup on the road toward a stronger U.S.-India partnership.”

After months of back and forth on a nuclear agreement between the United States and India, it came as a bit of a surprise when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told President Bush that because of political problems in his parliament, he’s going to have to put off final action on this agreement. Does this mean the agreement is dead?

I don’t think it’s dead, but it’s going into hibernation, or into long-term diplomatic cold storage. It will be difficult—not impossible, but difficult—for the Indian government to push this forward. It would take a decision to risk the unity of the coalition and, particularly, to alienate the Communist parties. At this point it looks like the decision of the prime minister and the Congress Party is to stay in power for as long as possible and to appease the Communists on this issue and not force a showdown in the parliament.

India has had a long tradition of Communist parties. For many Americans, with the fall of Communism in Europe nearly twenty years ago, there has been an assumption that Communism had died out. Obviously it has not died out in China. But what’s the situation with the party in India? Is it a true, Soviet-type Communist party?

No, in fact there’s more than one Communist party. There’s a coalition of Communist parties. These are not old-fashioned, Cold-War-era Communists. They are in many ways like the current-day Chinese Communists: They welcome foreign investment; they want to work with the private sector; but they also have a strong aversion to seeing India move into a very close strategic partnership with the United States. The aversion to a close relationship with the United States, much more than the details of the nuclear agreement, is what’s pushing the Communists to take a tough line here.

Most Indians welcome strong relationships with the United States, but for the extreme left in India, and that’s the Communists, it means breaking with sixty years of ideology and history, and they’re just extremely reluctant to do that.

Would they have supported a similar arrangement if India had signed such an agreement with Russia?

Probably. Again, I don’t think that it’s the details of the agreement, so much as the specter of India moving into an alignment with the United States. In this sense they really are on the wrong side of history. The United States and India have improved their relationship with each other vastly over the course of the last decade, and that trend is going to continue. I believe we will see this as a hiccup on the road toward a stronger U.S.-India partnership.

Now the deal may go into hibernation and never come out, but some of the positives of the deal—particularly putting the proliferation issue on the back burner between Washington and New Delhi—may endure whether the deal survives or not.

What do you mean by that?

One of the virtues of the deal was that it was an acknowledgement by the United States that India is not going to roll back and cease being a nuclear-weapon state, and in that sense President Bush did the right thing: He came to grips with reality and decided to move on.

We certainly should encourage India to join the international nonproliferation regime. Signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and ratifying it through the Indian parliament would be a very good first step. Of course, a very good first step would be for the U.S. Senate to ratify that same treaty.

But the deal, and the politics surrounding the deal, have made it clear that we’re not going to be pushing for rollback, or some kind of return to pre-1998 standards. India is a nuclear-weapon state, and the wise policy is to accept that and to move on. The deal and the politics surrounding it have at least moved us in that direction, and that’s a positive development. Whether the deal goes into place in 2007 or 2008 is now very much up in doubt, but the overall impact of putting the proliferation issue between the United States and India into its proper place will in the long run be a positive move.

How did the Congress Party, which has a very long tradition going back to Indian independence, make a coalition with the Communist Party? Was that the only party it could make a deal with?

The left, the Communists and their allies, were the largest potential coalition partner. The right, the Hindu BJP Party, was clearly not going to be a coalition partner unless you wanted to have a kind of national unity government. The Communist coalition were really the only choice the Congress Party had, and there’s a tradition with leftist parties that goes on and off in Indian politics. The coalition has generally worked very smoothly. This is really the first time that it’s had a fundamental challenge from the left on a critical issue.

It’s quite a tragedy for India, because almost anyone who’s studied this deal believes that India got a very, very good deal out of this. Most of the criticism in the United States was that our negotiators gave away too much and got too little in return. So there’s quite a difference in perception between Washington and Delhi on this.

The critics in Congress felt that India wasn’t forced to give up any military nuclear potential?

That’s right, and that the safeguards agreement applies only to a limited number of India’s nuclear facilities. There are facilities that will not be under safeguards, where India can continue to produce fissile material for weapons. In effect, the Indians walled off some of their production for military purposes, and said that the civilian production could be under international safeguards, but military production wouldn’t be.

The other criticism of the agreement is that it doesn’t have a firm agreement for India not to test again, and the Congressional critics have tried to legislate that into action. The Indians have maintained the position that they’ve had since 1998 that India has voluntarily decided not to test further, but keeps open the option in the event of a severe national security development.

The irony, of course, in all of this, is that we’re pressing the Indians to make a commitment on not testing when the Congress of the United States has refused to make a similar commitment on our own behalf.

India was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement of the 1960s. Just so I better understand the views of the Communists and their leftist allies, is that what they would like India to be still: a non-aligned country?

Very much so. There is nostalgia for the Non-Aligned Movement in India and among certain quarters of the Indian establishment. But of course, nonalignment doesn’t mean anything anymore when you have no more Cold War. How can you be nonaligned when there are no two powers to be separate from? In the long term, India has moved out of that quarter, but among those on the far left in India there is a vigorous attempt to hang onto the past for as long as possible.

Do you think that Prime Minister Singh should have tried to force the issue and let the vote happen?

There’s a lot of second-guessing going on precisely that issue, whether the Communists would have blinked when faced with the danger of having to face new elections. None of the parties in India is particularly eager to face new elections, because Indian elections are notoriously unpredictable. Nobody really thought the Congress Party had a chance of coming into power in the last election, and yet they did. So no political leader is particularly eager to take the risk of new elections. There was a chance the Communists would have blinked, but the prime minister, the Congress Party, and Sonia Gandhi [the president of the Congress Party], who helps make a lot of these decisions, in the end decided that they didn’t want to take that risk.

I thought she was a very strong supporter of this deal?

She is a very strong supporter and so was the prime minister, and it is clearly with a great deal of regret that they have decided to move this way. And again, I would note the unpredictable factor here; Indian politics could shift rapidly and there is always a possibility the government will decide to take the risk of forcing a showdown with the Communists. But both of them, both the prime minister and Sonia, have been speaking with regret about letting this be put into storage right now. They very much wanted to have this as part of their legacy, and it’s quite a disappointment to them.

It’s quite a disappointment to the Bush team, as well. When they looked around at their legacy in foreign affairs, this was going to be one of the bright spots and now, while much can be salvaged from this, they’re not going to be able to have the trophy of having it completed.

Is this a case where the Iraq war sabotaged this? In other words is it the Iraq war that was able to galvanize the left wing?

The Iraq war has had two effects: One, it reinforces the left’s deep suspicions and animosity toward American foreign policy and reinforces their inclination not to see the United States and India have a close strategic relationship. Secondly, it has an impact here, where the president simply doesn’t have the political capital to expend on this deal. It has kind of languished over the last couple of years. It hasn’t moved as quickly on the American side as it should have, either.

What is the view of presidential candidates on this issue?

All of the Democratic candidates voted for the deal—I mean those who were in the Senate. Senator Clinton [D-NY] and Senator Obama [D-IL] both voted for it, although they had reservations about elements of it. The good news in the long run is this: Whatever happens to this deal, in 2009 the United States and India will have an enormous opportunity to take a relationship, which has grown mature and strong in the last decade, to another level, and to make it one of the most important bilateral relationships in the twenty-first century.

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