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The U.S.-India Nuclear Deal: The Right Approach?

Discussants: Henry Sokolski, Executive Director, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, and Teresita Schaffer
Updated: May 26, 2006


The United States and India made international headlines this year when they announced a proposed nuclear deal that would give India assistance with its civilian nuclear energy program if New Delhi agrees to international inspections and safeguards. Opponents of the proposed legislation say it could fatally damage the international nonproliferation regime. The deal's advocates say it encourages New Delhi to prevent nuclear proliferation and marks a new closeness in the Indo-US relationship. Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, and Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, address the pros and cons of the administration's approach to nuclear cooperation with India in this CFR Online Debate.

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Latest Update Teresita_Schaffer May 26, 2006

Teresita Schaffer

Congress Should Focus on Bringing India into Nonproliferation Fold

The announcement of the framework for the U.S.-Indian nuclear understanding in July 2005 signaled that the U.S. administration wanted to give priority to preventing new entrants from joining the nuclear club over dealing with the three principal “outliers” outside the NPT: Israel, India, and Pakistan. In some ways, the nonproliferation system has already lost its virginity as a result.

The agreement has received both international support and criticism. The supporters are an interesting lineup: they include the head of the IAEA, France, Britain, and Russia. An important reason for this support is that for the past thirty years, India has kept its nuclear commitments and has not exported its nuclear goods or knowhow.

In India, opponents fear the agreement will constrain India’s future nuclear development. For supporters, it is the ultimate signal that the United States takes India seriously as an emerging power with important common interests. Supporters also relish the chance for a new Indian relationship to the nonproliferation system.

Because of the political controversy, the Indian government has handled this second dimension with kid gloves. It would be useful to hear from them how India plans to participate in international efforts to close down the grey market in nuclear goods and technology. I’m hopeful they will address this issue in the next few weeks, but one factor holding them back is concern that the United States may not deliver on its pledge.

I regret that my debating partner has chosen to focus only on the issue of how Congress can delay dealing with this proposal. The multi-stage process envisaged by the draft legislation is probably as close as we can come to the goal of allowing both countries’ democratically elected parliaments to move forward together, assess what they are promising, and work out the details with two different international organizations, the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. This process gives the U.S. Congress at least two distinct opportunities to say “no.” Amending a basic understanding that has been negotiated is always a tricky business. Inserting amendments that are known to be deal-breakers would damage the U.S.-Indian partnership, which enjoys wide bipartisan support. There may be ways of strengthening the bias in this agreement toward effective prevention of new nuclear weapons states. I hope, however, that Congress will deal with them now, and not turn the process into an endless delaying game. And in doing so, I hope they will keep their eyes on the twin prizes: cementing a serious strategic relationship with India, and bringing India’s power and political strength more fully into the world’s nonproliferation efforts.

Latest Update

Henry SokolskiMay 25, 2006

Henry Sokolski

Don't Cut Out Congress; Avoid the Rush to Get Things Wrong

The administration insists Congress can eventually review the nuclear deal. Meanwhile, they're demanding Congress adopt legislation that would force the body to rubber-stamp it.

Current law prevents U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation from proceeding until both houses approve it by majority vote. The administration, which refuses even to let Congressional leaders peek at the draft of the deal, wants to eliminate this. It is pushing legislation that would only permit Congress to amend the deal if both houses muster a two-thirds vote to override a presidential veto. That may be appropriate for laws and trade deals, but it's hardly how nuclear cooperative agreements—constitutional hybrids between treaties and laws—should be reviewed.

Administration officials say Congress should trust them: The deal won't proceed until the President certifies that India and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have formalized an inspections plan. But, with the plan not yet formalized, it's unclear what the inspections will cover. India wants the frequency and coverage of inspections kept to a minimum and insists on bending IAEA standards so inspections would apply to India's plants only when foreign fuel is present. Moreover, not India, Washington, or the IAEA (whose inspections budget is tapped out) want to pay the millions annually needed to implement inspections. Without Congressional review of the plan first, the president's certification could gloss over these points.

This is worrisome, but administration officials don't think Congress should bother with such details. They want Congress to approve their legislation now, hoping that this will convince other nuclear-supplying states to sell India nuclear fuel before the U.S. ties up these loose ends. Once supplier-states let India buy their uranium, though, India'sinterest in allowing more IAEA inspections will decline. After all, the deal allows India to hook up domestically fueled reactors to the grid and have them produce bomb materials. It can claim these machines are not purely "civilian"—thereby preventing the IAEA from inspecting them—and secure foreign ore to fuel additional inspected reactors. Result: India dodges having to make any hard choices between producing more electricity or bombs for many more years.

To avert this, Congress must use its traditional powers of review. It also should encourage India to kill proposed investments and projects of military interest with Iran, and specify how India will work with U.S. forces in the Indian Ocean.

Congress can make the U.S.-India partnership a healthy, long-lasting one—but it must choose do so.

Teresita_Schaffer May 24, 2006

Teresita Schaffer

Safeguards will Secure Agreement

The legislation under consideration on the Hill would not go into effect until the president certifies, among other things, that India and the IAEA have implemented a safeguards agreement and are making satisfactory progress toward implementing an Additional Protocol applicable to India's civil nuclear program. Both these key documents will have to reach the standards expected by the IAEA, which we have entrusted with responsibility for building and maintaining the international consensus on nonproliferation. The bilateral cooperation agreement between India and the United States will have to go through congressional scrutiny in any event. So there is plenty of opportunity for review of the other parts of this process.

The agreement restricts U.S. cooperation to the safeguarded civilian part of India's nuclear industry, now expanded from six to fourteen facilities. Its impact on India's military nuclear program depends on what India would have done without the agreement. During the past thirty years, India has consistently protected its military program, and there is every reason to assume that without this deal, it would continue to do so. Indeed, with nuclear power accounting for under 3 percent of India's electricity, that is the obvious choice: Squeezing the civilian sector involves a relatively small sacrifice in power supply.

The extra breathing room India would receive through imported fuel supplies will thus in a real sense build up India's civilian capacity. Indian economic planners talk about expanding nuclear power generation tenfold by 2022. If they succeed in making nuclear generation a larger part of India's energy infrastructure, India's stake in maintaining its safeguarded civilian nuclear capacity will also grow.

India's votes on Iran in the IAEA board suggest that the United States has been clear about its expectations, and that the Indian government has responded at some political cost. In explaining India's vote, the prime minister said India had strong energy interests in Iran, but did not wish to see another nuclear power in the neighborhood. India's forthright reappraisal of its own interests reflects the importance it attaches to relations with the United States.

India's relations with China blend cooperation and rivalry. The United Sates should welcome their current rapprochement, which is good for peace and stability in Asia. The United States is interested in a strong India as China rises, but has no interest in stoking regional hostility.

Pakistan will never be happy with strong U.S.-India relations—and vice versa. Pakistan is receiving over $600 million per year in aid, half of it military, and has very close relations with the U.S. leadership. Its government knows why a deal similar to India's is out of the question.

Henry SokolskiMay 23, 2006

Henry Sokolski

Not Sound—At Least Not Yet

No one disputes the goals of encouraging a healthy strategic partnership with India and strengthening nuclear nonproliferation. But the administration's haste to satisfy Indian demands to sweep away long-standing nuclear rules has rightly got Congress scratching its head. The India deal is the first in fifty years to relax nuclear supply controls and cut back congressional review powers—all before Congress even gets a chance to see the actual agreement or India's IAEA inspection plan. It's this unnecessary rush that's "imposing costs on the nonproliferation regime," and is strategically risky.

India, which is burning about 150 tons of uranium more than it produces annually and is about to run out, certainly would prefer to get access to foreign uranium immediately. But that's no reason for the world's nuclear suppliers immediately to loosen their nuclear controls, any more than it's cause for the administration to demand Congress abandon its traditional procedures for reviewing nuclear cooperative deals. Certainly, India wouldn't be in its current uranium bind if it stopped making fissile material for its military program (a project that consumes about 150 tons of uranium annually—that is, as much as India's current shortfall). That's why some think India (along with Pakistan and China) should be urged now to emulate the world's mature nuclear weapon states, which as a matter of policy have already stopped producing military fissile material.

Article I of the the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) currently obliges the United States not to help a state's military nuclear efforts in any way if that state did not have a bomb before 1968. That's not Jim Crow, it's the rules. Violate them, as the United States is proposing to do by giving India access to foreign uranium, settle for the meager nonproliferation commitments India has offered so far, and the nuclear rules will only be weakened even further.

Finally, by not further specifying up front what we want from India and how it should interact with Iran and China (yes, India has formal strategic agreements with them too), the administration risks undermining any lasting strategic partnership with New Delhi by being unclear. The United States must take greater care not to further spook Pakistan, a heavily armed nation that is beginning to feel outflanked by Indian port and road construction in and with Iran and Afghanistan.

Again, the United States should not try to get the India deal done any faster than it can get it done right. Haste makes mistakes.

Teresita SchafferMay 22, 2006

Teresita Schaffer

Decision to Seek 'Grand Bargain' Involving Nuclear Cooperation Was Sound

The administration's proposed nuclear agreement with India has two goals: developing a strategic partnership with India, and bringing India into the nonproliferation system to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons.

The strategic partnership makes sense. Civil nuclear cooperation is a necessary part of that effort. The administration's approach imposes costs on the nuclear nonproliferation regime, but it also represents an opportunity to strengthen important parts of it.

Two things make the U.S.-India partnership important. First, with the end of the Cold War and accelerated Indian economic growth, the United States is India's most important external relationship, and India's foreign policy is now driven largely by global security and long-term trade, investment, and energy needs. Second, the rise of China and India is transforming Asia. Even with a policy of friendly engagement with China, the United States needs to build strong relations with other Asian powers, especially India.

The Clinton and first Bush administrations both tried to shape this partnership while keeping the nuclear issue in quarantine. It didn't work. India's nuclear "Jim Crow" status stuck in the craw of leaders from both India's major parties, and blocked the kind of wide-ranging dialogue such a partnership needs.

The Bush administration's decision to abandon "quarantine" and seek a grand bargain including civil nuclear cooperation was therefore sound. There was no chance of India giving up its nuclear weapons, so any bargain would involve major changes in U.S. nonproliferation policy and in the international nonproliferation system.

The U.S.-India understanding should permit us to enlist India in more vigorous international efforts to prevent deeply irresponsible countries from joining the nuclear weapons club. That is today's principal proliferation danger; changes in the system should be judged on whether they help address it. India will not become a full participant in counter-proliferation efforts while it is treated as a nuclear pariah. If the U.S.-India nuclear agreement leads to a more energetic Indian posture, this will more than compensate for the questions raised by changes in the traditional nonproliferation structure.

The proposed legislation gives Congress an opportunity to make a judgment on the broad policy. The United States and India negotiated a reciprocal deal with both sides moving more or less in sync. It is not reasonable to expect to have all the Indian pieces of the puzzle in place while India waits and wonders whether the United States is willing and able to deliver the U.S. parts.

Henry SokolskiMay 22, 2006

Henry Sokolski

Bush Administration Going Too Far, Too Fast

The administration's current approach toward promoting nuclear cooperation with India is going too fast and playing too loose with the nuclear rules for anyone's good. Consider its push two months ago to get the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to flip the rules for India (a country the NSG bans nuclear sales to since India refuses to open up its nuclear facilities to international inspections). India, administration officials insisted, was deserving since it promised to separate its military from its civilian nuclear program, to open the latter to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, and to establish effective strategic export controls. India, though, hasn't yet separated its programs (it only has a draft memo on how it might do so); it's made no progress in reaching an inspections agreement with the IAEA; and it has failed to fully implement effective export controls (the United States had to sanction India for illicit nuclear and chemical exports to Iran and North Korea five times in the last eighteen months). Russia, meanwhile—goaded by Washington's rush to secure an NSG cutout for India—last month jumped the gun by abusing a "nuclear safety" exception in the NSG guidelines. The United States decided not to clarify the NSG safety exception, which would assure no one follows Russia's bad example of supplying reactor fuel to prohibited countries. Result: the very nonproliferation regime the administration claims the Indian deal would strengthen has been made even more wobbly because of Washington's careless haste.

On Capitol Hill, the story is much the same. The administration is insisting Congress act in June to allow routine nuclear cooperation with India—something current law prohibits given India's 1974 use of U.S nuclear assistance to make bombs, its refusal to sign the NPT, and its 1998 nuclear tests. The administration wants Congress immediately to put aside the current requirement that both houses review and approve by a majority any Indian nuclear cooperative agreement, even though the agreement, NSG approval of such trade, and finalization of an IAEA safeguards are as much as a year away. Predictably, this request has produced congressional heel-digging, and with cause: In recent weeks New Delhi objected to standard U.S. language stipulating a cutoff of U.S. nuclear aid if India again tests a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, in Vienna, India officials refused the safeguards plan agency staff offered.

All this suggests the administration needs to slow down and focus more on delivering what it promised.

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