Nonproliferation: Still Time for a Good Deal With India

Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
Michael A. Levi

March 10, 2006

The nuclear deal with India that President Bush agreed to in New Delhi last week is a missed opportunity for American leadership on nonproliferation. But the deal is far from the disaster that its detractors claim.

It can still be improved upon in ways that strengthen nonproliferation—not least by foreclosing the sale of uranium enrichment and reprocessing technology and making sure that any future Indian reactors will strictly serve civilian purposes.

Since key provisions in U.S. law will have to be modified before the agreement can be implemented, it will be up to Congress to seize the opportunity that the Bush administration has missed. And if either the administration or India refuses to make changes, the deal should not go through.

Many administration critics on and off Capitol Hill believe that the deal, which would open nuclear commerce between the United States and India without requiring New Delhi to give up its nuclear weapons program, is so fundamentally flawed that it cannot be salvaged. They argue that states join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and forgo nuclear arms in large part because membership grants them access to civilian nuclear technology. Now that India will be allowed such access without joining the NPT and giving up nuclear weapons, those who are party to the treaty will feel cheated and may decide to opt out. Given the coming confrontation with Iran over similar issues, the Indian deal comes at precisely the wrong time, the critics argue, so Congress should reject the deal out of hand.

But the NPT, and the nonproliferation regime more broadly, is based on far firmer foundations than the incentive of non-nuclear states gaining access to peaceful nuclear technology. One of the most fundamental bargains in the NPT is the one made amongst the states that have chosen to forgo nuclear arms: Each of them agrees not to develop nuclear weapons so long as its neighbors abstain, as well. That arrangement makes each state more secure—and that basic security calculation, backed by alliances like NATO that provide security in the absence of nuclear arms, is what convinces states to remain non-nuclear. Nothing in the India deal changes that essential calculation, and there is therefore little reason to fear that states that have foresworn nuclear weapons will now rethink their decisions.

Though the deal with India will not destroy the NPT, it also does nothing to strengthen the regime. President Bush, as well as many others, have put forward useful remedies in the past to strengthen the treaty. The negotiations with India represented an opportunity for the administration to revive some of these ideas, but it failed to do so. As it audits the deal, Congress should do what the administration did not and condition its approval on changes in the deal that will strengthen our nonproliferation efforts.

One potential provision deals with uranium enrichment technology, which can be used to make nuclear weapons. Two years ago, President Bush proposed banning the sale of this technology to countries that did not already have it. India has only rudimentary uranium enrichment technology. Congress should explicitly preclude the sale of any enrichment technology to India.

Congress should impose similar restrictions on the export of plutonium reprocessing technologies, which is key to another path for making nuclear arms. India already has substantial reprocessing capabilities, but Congress should still exclude reprocessing technology from any U.S.-India transactions allowed under their nuclear deal.

Another step would aim at closing a key loophole in the deal—the provision that allows India to decide whether it will subject the fast breeder nuclear technology it is developing to international inspections. Given that Delhi claims to need this technology, which rapidly produces weapons-useable plutonium, to feed its growing appetite for energy, it should agree not to use any plutonium produced by these new reactors to build nuclear weapons. Congress, accordingly, should condition any future nuclear commerce with India on Delhi’s agreement to place all of these new reactors under international safeguards.

Beyond restrictions on specific technologies, Congress should also look to using its power to gain India’s binding commitment not to test any nuclear devices in the future. While Delhi has promised the Bush administration that it will refrain from testing, it would be better to condition implementation of the deal on its signing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, as every nuclear power already has.

Congress cannot take these steps, or impose other conditions, on its own—it must gain India’s acceptance to ensure the deal will not collapse. It might seem that India, having made a deal with the President, will not be open to further concessions. But New Delhi will understand that its negotiations with the White House were only a beginning — in a democracy, Indian or American, the people’s representatives necessarily have a say. A critical opportunity thus remains for Congress, using India as an example, to show how America can both strengthen a key strategic partnership and at same time bolster the nuclear nonproliferation regime.