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Scheinman: New U.S.-India Agreement Undercuts U.S. Allegiance to Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons

Interviewee: Lawrence Scheinman
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 3, 2005

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Lawrence Scheinman, a prominent expert in arms control policy, says the Bush administration's sudden agreement in principle to provide nuclear technology to India even though India has never joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has nuclear arms, "rubs up against the longstanding policy that we have had on nuclear proliferation." In short, that policy holds that the United States should not aid the nuclear efforts, civilian or otherwise, of nations not in conformity with the non-proliferation regime.

Although the agreement was announced in principle on July 18, there is not yet a formal accord awaiting congressional action. Scheinman says President Bush will "have a tough time" getting it through Congress unless there is considerable consultation and flexibility. The agreement to help out India's civil nuclear program comes at a time when the United States is trying to pressure Iran, which is a signatory to the NPT, not to go further in their ostensible civilian nuclear program.

Using the term used by the administration to describe the Iraqi coalition, Scheinman says the "United States administration does not have great confidence in multilateral institutions as a way to get things done and prefers to act on the basis of a consensus of 'the willing.'"

Scheinman, the distinguished professor at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, was formerly assistant director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the Clinton administration. He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 3, 2005.

Right now, there seem to be several issues concerning the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. One is the administration's concern about Iran developing a nuclear capability that it believes could lead eventually to its getting nuclear weapons. There are also the ongoing six-nation negotiations with North Korea to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program. Now, the newest issue is the agreementin principle—announced in the middle of July between India and the United States about a very broad strategic agreement which, in part, would give India nuclear help in its nuclear civilian industry, even though India is not a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT]. How does the administration justify its approach to Iran on one side and India on the other?

I think the first point that we need to recognize is that India never accepted the constraints of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It's one of the three states that remain outside the treaty.

The others are Pakistan and Israel?

Yes, Pakistan and Israel are the other two. In comparing India and Iran, however, while India had never undertaken any obligations with respect to nonproliferation, Iran is a party to the NPT and made a commitment to nonproliferation, to safeguards, and to provide all the appropriate information to the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]. Iran was found to be delinquent in providing information to the IAEA for a period of somewhere between fifteen and eighteen years about what it was doing, what it was proposing, what it was producing, and the like.

So, Iran has to be looked upon as a state that had a set of legally binding obligations with which it failed to comply.

India is a state that never made the commitment in the first place to the NPT. And it is now regarded by the US administration as an important potential strategic partner as it looks to the years ahead with respect to East Asia and to the broader international system. It's also important to remember that before the agreement that was reached on July 18th between India and the United States, there had been ongoing discussion on strategic relations between the two countries. I think about a month before this agreement was reached between India and the United States, an agreement on Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership was concluded that called for improved relations in economic, technological, and military cooperation fields. It was the July statement that brought in the civil nuclear cooperation factor that rubs up against the longstanding policy that we have had on nuclear proliferation.

Can you tell us what that policy is?

The policy is that we will not cooperate with any state that does not accept full scope safeguards on all of its civil nuclear activities. This is inscribed in our 1978 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act that amended the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. We do not say that a state has to be an NPT party, to qualify for cooperationit could for example be a party to a nuclear-weapon free zone treatybut it must accept that it will have only civil nuclear activity and that nuclear activity will be under comprehensive international safeguards.

And those safeguards mean what? The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)?

IAEA safeguards to verify that the state is in compliance with its undertaking not to produce anything nuclear but for civil purposes. In addition, we had taken the lead in creating the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in the aftermath of the 1974 India “peaceful” nuclear test and for years we had been trying to get all of the nuclear suppliers to agree that they would not cooperate with any country that did not accept comprehensive IAEA safeguards on all of their nuclear activities.

It was not until 1992 that the NSG agreed as an entity that that's the way that they would proceed in the future. And now the United States comes along and says, "Well, we think our legislation with respect to nonproliferation and safeguards needs to be adjusted because there are new geo-strategic considerations that we are trying to deal with and that we'll also have to get our NSG partners to agree to alter a policy commitment that we took in 1992 after twenty years of U.S. efforts."

So, did this come as sort of a bolt from nowhere to the Congress?

I think it did. I don't think anybody anticipated that the administration was going to suddenly turn around and say, "Well, our national legislation, our national policy, and our international undertakings need to be changed because we have a new situation that we are confronting, a modernizing China, in terms of its nuclear weapons, a growing assertiveness of China in the East Asia region and India, a democratic country that has not joined the NPT, but that could serve as an important partner in trying to maintain stability in that region of the world."

Now, explain to me one thing: We know India has had a series of nuclear tests, including most recently in 1998. There are now five nuclear-weapon states that are acknowledged—the United States, Britain, Russia, France, and China.

Yes, the NPT acknowledged five nuclear-weapon states.

Why can't India be a nuclear-weapon state since it obviously has nuclear weapons?

Because, under the terms of the NPT the only states that can be recognized as nuclear weapon states for the purposes of the treaty are those that tested before January 1, 1967—that was the definition agreed to by the states that negotiated the NPT. India did not conduct a test until 1974, so in order for them to become a nuclear weapon state the treaty would have to be fundamentally amended. Amendment is extremely difficult, and if you opened up that treaty to amend it to accommodate India then you would effectively be opening the treaty up to amendment for other reasons. Everybody would want to assert their view on what they felt was deficient in the NPT and should be corrected. One of those things would be Article Six of the NPT. Most of the countries in the world would like to see Article Six, the commitment of the nuclear-weapon states to disarm being fulfilled on a more rapid and comprehensive basis than they think we're doing. So they would say that if you want to amend the treaty to allow India to become a party to the treaty as a nuclear-weapon state, then we want you to accept a time-bound framework for getting rid of all of your nuclear weapons. And that is something we don't want to open ourselves up to.

Now, the Bush administration's policy on nonproliferation until now has been what?

The administration asserts that it is strongly in favor of promoting nuclear nonproliferation. But it's been less convinced that the best way to do this is through arms control arrangements or through multilateral institutions and agreements and prefers what has been called by [Council President] Richard Haass  “multilateralism a la carte,” which is what you see in the so-called Proliferations Security Initiative and initiatives that the United States has pushed with its G-8 [Group of Eight] partners with respect to dealing with the threat of nuclear weapons material becoming available to non-state actors and terrorist groups.  In other words, the United States administration does not have great confidence in multilateral institutions as a way to get things done and prefers to act on the basis of a consensus of “the willing.”

So you're taking that expression from Iraq?

Yes

So how did the policy on India evolve?

Our former Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill was pushing very hard, and others in the administration were pressing to reassess our relationship with India. They were saying that it's unfortunate that here you have the largest democracy in the world, with whom we share many common values, which is being dealt with differently than almost everybody else and we need in the present international political/security environment is a closer and better and stronger relationship with India. Most people would agree, I among them, that it's important for the United States to forge a stronger and deeper set of relations with India. We do have a lot in common.

The question is whether, in doing so, we should sacrifice another value that we have, which is the value of sustaining a credible nuclear nonproliferation regime. So I think what you're seeing here is basically a problem of how do you strengthen relationships with India, but not at the expense of another important relationship, which is the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

How would this agreement in July violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty?

What is involved here, essentially, is that under the existing law that we mentioned a few minutes ago under our national legislation and under our international undertakings in the Non-Proliferation Treaty and with the NSG, there is not supposed to be any cooperation in the nuclear field with countries that don't accept comprehensive safeguards on all their nuclear activities. That means that they are to have civil programs, that they forego the pursuit or acquisition of nuclear weapons or explosive devices, and that that civil program can be verified.

By entering into this agreement, we're saying that, well, even though you are a self-declared nuclear weapon state, even though you are running a nuclear weapons program, we are prepared to enter into some kind of a relationship with you where we can have cooperation in the civil nuclear sector. Then the question becomes, what does the United States get for what it's apparently prepared to give, and what is it that India is giving to the United States and the international community in exchange for what it receives in the way of nuclear cooperation?

There has been a whole list of things that has been indicated in the record. India has agreed that it would maintain a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, and that it would work for the conclusion of a fissile material cutoff convention, and that it would strengthen its nuclear export control system. These are things that are very much part of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The problem for many of us is that yes, these are good things but they're already in place, that is to say these are policies and practices currently being pursued by the Indian government, so the question is, what else is India going to do?

One of the other things that they are committing themselves to do is not to transfer any sensitive nuclear technology to states that don't already have them. That's very consistent with U.S. thinking as well. You may recall the president's statement in February of 2004 that called for no further transfer of enrichment or reprocessing technologies to states that don't already have fully operational capability in that field; in other words, to create a new barrier to any other countries entering into the business of enrichment and reprocessing, which of course is focused very much on the Iranian situation. India is saying, “Yes, yes, we'll go along with that as well.” In fact, if you look back at the history, India has never, to our knowledge, transferred these sensitive nuclear technologies. But then you get to something else. India has several reactors that are under international safeguards because they were provided to India by suppliers on that condition, for example the Tarapur reactors.

That's provided by the United States.

Yes. The others are the Rajasthan reactors that were provided by Canada. The rest of the reactors that are in India are not under any kind of surveillance, monitoring, or controls. They have said in this agreement with the United States that they would separate their military and civilian nuclear facilities and place their civilian facilities under IAEA safeguards and that they would also adhere to the additional protocols and safeguards (PDF) that the board of governors had approved in 1997 and to which we have already signed up but have not yet implemented.

The problem here is that  it's the sovereign right of India to make the decision as to what is civil, what is military, and they could say they have about eight reactors that are not under safeguards that they could declare to be civil facilities but they won't do that for all of them because they have taken the position, as far as I understand it, that they, unlike the United States or the former Soviet Union, have not stockpiled large quantities of fissile nuclear material that could be used weapons purposes and require flexibility to respond to changing circumstances. They have a minimum deterrence policy and posture and they only produce as much nuclear material for those weapons as they need and that's a changing, shifting requirement. So the question would be, are they prepared to declare all of their nuclear facilities other than the specifically dedicated facilities weapons program to be civil, to place it under international safeguards in perpetuity so that they could never withdraw a facility from safeguards and apply its capability for a weapons program, or are they not?

This is going to be a very, very big problem in terms of how things go forward and why many of us have been urging the Congress, which has to get into this whole business of approving an agreement for cooperation and approving the conditions for export policies to be carried out, to insist on a  very rigorous set of conditions to be applied, including a very broad declaration of facilities to be strictly for civil purposes. Congress has to get into this in terms of changing our law; and we as a country have to get into this in terms of getting an agreement in terms of all our partners in the NSG. There are now forty-five countries involved in the suppliers group. It operates on the basis of consensus, which means that everybody has got to agree that yes, we will change the rules of the game and we'll do it en masse and we'll not have one country walk away and say, “I'm going to do what I please,” after having worked so hard to get an agreement that we would all work according to the same set of rules.

Is there any likelihood that Congress will say no?

I don't think that Congress will say no. I think what Congress will do is to determine the conditions under which they would be prepared to approve an agreement for cooperation with India . What is necessary is that the administration places before the Congress a draft agreement for cooperation. This applies to any cooperative agreement that we have and it sits before Congress, I think, for a total of ninety days and the Congress has to act on it. If the Congress doesn't like what they see in terms of the particulars in that agreement for cooperation, they can say, “Well, we're prepared to accept this if you do A and B.” One of the ideas is that the Indian government should agree to a voluntary moratorium on any further production of fissile material for weapons purpose, while a fissile material cutoff treaty (that they agree to pursue with the US and others) is being negotiated.

The Indians have already been approached on this, as far as I understand it, and they said absolutely not. The reason they said “no” was the reason I gave earlier, that they say they don't stockpile fissile material for weapons, but produce it as needed. If there were a sudden change in terms of need and they were locked into a no-production fissile material for weapons, they would not be able to address their changing security environment.

Are the Iranians saying the United States is being very hypocritical? Are other countries saying that?

Yes. I think that from the Iranian point of view, they sit there and say, "Wait a minute, here is a country that doesn't subscribe to the NPT and is free to go out as a consequence—legally free to go out—and develop nuclear weapons, which it's been doing, and you're about to do business with them, which is fine. On the other hand here we are a party to the NPT, we have accepted full scope safeguards, we have adopted the additional protocol and applied it even before our legislature has ratified it, and you're telling us we don't have the right to complete the nuclear fuel cycle? Wait a minute, how is it that the Indians can be rewarded for their staying outside the treaty and still get all the cooperation that a party inside the treaty would normally get and you're telling us that we shouldn't be enriching nuclear material, we should not be reprocessing nuclear material and that we're bad guys and we should be treated accordingly."

So it does make it very difficult and the Iranians are very clever. From their point of view, the United States is promoting a policy of differentiation in the treatment of India that has always stayed outside of the NPT. How do other countries like South Africa, the Ukraine, Brazil that gave up nuclear weapons programs and stayed within the treaty, how do they react to this? These countries have to be thinking, "Wait a second, we gave up these rights and we committed ourselves to a legally binding commitment, and in order to get cooperation, now you're going to go ahead and offer cooperation to a country that said it's not going to subscribe to any of these things?"

I assume Pakistan will be knocking on our door, too.

They already are. There are reports that the Pakistanis would like to build a number of power reactors and you bring up a good point. If the United States is successful in getting an agreement to go forward with this arrangement with India, the Chinese, who have already said that they have what we would call “grandfathered agreements” with Pakistan will be in there in full force to transfer more technology and to cooperate more. Other countries will be looking at Pakistan and say, “Maybe we can do some business there as well.”

Now, that business would be under safeguards and under conditions that a country cannot produce material for weapons purposes. One thing that I forgot to add, is that if we get into the business of nuclear cooperation and the transfer of nuclear material for civil reactors to India, to the extent that we're making those transfers, we are relieving them of the need to produce their own material for their civil programs domestically and the workload that would have gone into producing that civil nuclear material could, in theory, be dedicated to producing nuclear material for weapons purposes. So, in a sense, we would be assisting them in their proliferation.

Why did the United States feel it necessary to do all of this? Why couldn't it just have a strategic agreement against terrorism and stuff like that?

Good question. Why couldn't we have a wholesome strategic agreement between ourselves and India that didn't get into the issue of civil nuclear cooperation? I think that the answer to that is that the Indians wanted to have an agreement that gave them legitimacy, the recognition by the world's leading power that they are a legitimate state in conducting their nuclear activities and that opens the door for them to be considered one of the inside crowd, as opposed to being on the outside. I think the answer to this is very much a question of India's self-image and its image in the world and its concern that it be acknowledged for what it is, which is a nuclear-weapon state, even though it's not one that is a weapon-state by the definition of the NPT.

Does President Bush have enough political clout to push this through, you think?


I think he'll have a tough time. I am aware of the fact that Congress on both sides of the aisle, Senate and House sides have indicated to the Administration that they expect not to be presented with a fait accompli, take it or leave it kind of agreement for cooperation, but rather to keep a close consultation with the Congress on this. I think that if the administration chose to just try to barrel it through, it wouldn't make it. But, if they chose to do it on the basis on temperate negotiation and consultation and working and ironing out the wrinkles and the differences with the Congress that they might be able to get something.

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