WASHINGTON – While U.S. President George W. Bush hailed Thursday’s nuclear accord with India as a major breakthrough in forging a "strategic partnership" with the South Asian giant, the pact has been broadly denounced by nonproliferation experts here as a devil’s bargain.
The agreement, which must still be approved by the U.S. Congress, marks a significant blow to the prevailing international nonproliferation regime, according to the critics, who have argued that it effectively rewards India for behavior that differs little from what Iran is trying to do today.
"It’s going to be tough to argue that Iran and North Korea should be denied nuclear technology while India which has failed to even join the Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] is given the same technology on a silver platter," said Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin.
"The deal is a disaster for the nuclear nonproliferation regime on the planet," agreed Democratic Rep. Edward Markey, a leading proliferation specialist in the U.S. Congress, who is expected to spearhead efforts to defeat the accord as signed.
"It blows a hole through any attempts in the future that we could make to convince the Pakistanis, or the Iranians, or the North Koreans, or for that matter any other country in the world that might interested in obtaining nuclear weapons, that there is a level playing field, that there is a real set of safeguards," he added in an interview with public television.
While most observers believe that a majority in Congress will eventually go along with the deal, they also expect a spirited fight, and not only from Democrats like Markey.
A number of high-ranking Republican lawmakers have also indicated strong doubts about the deal, precisely because of the likelihood that it will encourage proliferation and thus undermine national security. Among the doubters, for example, are the chairmen of the two houses’ foreign affairs committees, Rep. Henry Hyde and Sen. Richard Lugar.
Even the head of the increasingly powerful Congressional Caucus on India, Rep. Gary Ackerman, has warned that Bush will have to become personally involved in the effort to gain legislative approval.
"The president has, thus far, done a horrendous job of convincing Congress that the agreement is a good idea," he said Thursday. "Now that there is an agreement with India, he must get to work and make the case to Congress, or else the nuclear deal will blow up in his face."
The agreement, which was concluded only at the eleventh hour of Bush’s first trip to India this week, ends a U.S. moratorium on sales of nuclear fuel and equipment to India since it first exploded a nuclear device 32 years ago.
In exchange, India agreed to separate its nuclear program into separate military and civilian components and to open the latter to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for the first time. India also agreed to abide by international nonproliferation agreements, such as those of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
But nonproliferation specialists like Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace charged that agreement’s specifics notably the exemption of "military" reactors from international inspections and safeguards deal a mortal blow to the international nonproliferation regime.
Under the plan, about one third of India’s existing 22 nuclear reactors are designated as military, including a prototype fast-breeder reactor, which produces plutonium needed for the production of nuclear weapons. Moreover, the accord gives India the authority to assign future nuclear reactors, including fast-breeders, to the military side of its nuclear program, thus making them, too, exempt from international safeguards.
"The deal appears to give India complete freedom not just to continue but to expand its production of fissile material for nuclear weapons," according to Robert Einhorn, a top nonproliferation specialist in the Bill Clinton administration (1993-2001) now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) here.
"In the future, any reactor it designates as ‘military’ can be used for the weapons program," he said, questioning what Bush received in return.
Carnegie’s Cirincione was more blunt: "President Bush has now given away the store. He did everything but actually sell nuclear weapons to India."
Indeed, India, which, 32 years after its first nuclear test, is believed to have accumulated about 50 nuclear weapons, could almost double that arsenal each year with the plutonium produced by breeder reactors.
The Bush administration and its backers defend the accord as a major advance on a variety of fronts. They point out that the agreement will bring a significant part of India’s nuclear program under international safeguards for the first time and also enable New Delhi to make improvements that will contribution to its overall safety and security.
They also stress that the construction of new nuclear power plants in India will reduce its fast-growing economy’s reliance on fossil fuels. Not only will that mean cheaper oil and gas for other energy-hungry countries, but, according to the administration with no hint of irony it will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
To most critics, these justifications ring remarkably hollow, and not only because the administration has opposed efforts to mandate limits to U.S. greenhouse emissions.
"Nuclear power plants, even at the officially projected level of 20,000 megawatts for the year 2020, are not going to significantly contribute to solving India’s energy problems," according to Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) here. The percentage of India’s electricity generated by nuclear power would rise from 3 percent to 5 percent, if projections are realized.
Rather, the main motivations for the deal appear to be both strategic and economic.
According to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis, many of the largest U.S. companies regard India as the "next big frontier" and have come to believe that a nuclear accord "will open the way for a spate of deals, not just in potential nuclear sales, but in everything from turbines and jets to road construction." These companies, which include General Electric and Ford, among others, stand poised to lobby hard for congressional approval of the pact.
The strategic rationale namely, the hope that India, along with Japan, will become a strategic counterweight to China in Asia may be even more decisive, according to analysts here who note the fervent interest shown by the Pentagon, and U.S. arms manufacturers, over the last several years in cultivating New Delhi.
Indeed, this interest was underlined, as noted by the New York Times Friday, by the Pentagon’s release of "an unusually explicit statement" praising the deal as a way to enhance bilateral military cooperation, including arms sales.
"Where only a few years ago, no one would have talked about the prospects for a major U.S.-India defense deal," it said, "today the prospects are promising, whether in the realm of combat aircraft, helicopters, maritime patrol aircraft, or naval vessels."
Not only will the deal enable India to accelerate its development of nuclear weapons, but it may also contribute to an increase in tensions between India and China, which, according to Cirincione, is already reported to be considering a similar accord with Pakistan another nuclear power that has defied the NPT.
(Inter Press Service)