India Not Out of the Nuclear Wilderness

Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, at the Wolrd Economic Forum (Wolrd Economic Forum/flickr)

by Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

ABC News International, December 18, 2006

President Bush signed HR 5682, the United States and Indian Nuclear Cooperation Promotion Act of 2006, into law at a White House ceremony this morning.

The act allows the United States to renew the supply of civilian nuclear technology and materials to India after a hiatus of nearly three decades. The reason for this long cold shoulder: the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The treaty, put together in 1968, declared that only five recognized nuclear powers could have both nuclear weapons and civilian nuclear reactors. After China carried out a nuclear test in 1964, India decided to seek nuclear weapons. Since India wasn't a recognized nuclear power, its nuclear power program was cut off and isolated by the world community, including the United States.

As part of a broader policy of transforming bilateral relations between the two largest democracies, the U.S. administration announced in July 2005 that it would seek to pass legislation that would allow the United States to resume civilian nuclear cooperation with India.

In return, India would place its civilian reactors under international safeguards, ensuring they would be proofed against proliferation. However, India would be allowed to keep its nuclear weapons -- in the same way that the United States, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and China do.

The 2005 agreement sparked a heated debate about its merits within India and the United States, as well as in other parts of the world. The strongest argument against the deal was that giving India an exemption within the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty would encourage rogue states like Iran and North Korea to demand the same.

The case for the deal had two sides.

One was that bringing India -- a rising power and a country with a better nonproliferation record than, say, China, an official nuclear power -- would strengthen the global nuclear system, not weaken it. Among the proponents of this argument was Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the treaty's official guardian.

The other, felt strongly by Bush and his officials, was that a close strategic relationship with India was necessary to U.S. security in the coming decades. This partnership would remain stillborn so long as the United States maintained treaty-based technology sanctions against India.

For example, the treaty's sanctions put severe curbs on U.S. know-how in several fields, including supercomputers and high-performance jet fighters, in India.

The U.S.-India nuclear cooperation deal attracted bouquets and brickbats from curious quarters.

Despite claims it would boost Iran's nuclear ambitions, it received the support of the Israeli lobby. Right-wing Hindu nationalists and communists joined forces in India to oppose the agreement. U.S. corporations rallied in favor of it. Disarmament nongovernmental organizations came out strongly against. Russia and France gave it a green light, while China dragged its heels.

After a year of debate, both houses of Congress passed the bill by overwhelming margins in early December.

India is still not out of the nuclear wilderness, however: A more detailed so-called 123 Agreement must be approved by Congress; New Delhi also has to work out an inspection protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency; and the 52-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group must agree to grant a similar exemption.

However, it is widely accepted that U.S. legislative action was by far the most difficult hurdle.

Going by the initial reactions to the deal, concerns that it would wreck the nonproliferation regime seem overblown.

Pyongyang and Tehran seem to accept that they don't have the same credentials as secular, democratic India.

On the other hand, there is expected to be a quantum jump in content and form of the U.S.-India relationship. And that, in the long term, may have far greater geopolitical fallout than the concerns about nuclear rogue states that dominated the controversy about the passage of the bill.

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri is an Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Fellow in New York. Pramit is also the foreign editor of Hindustan Times in New Delhi, and is the newspaper's US correspondent.