Nuclear Weapons

President Signs US-India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement

12.21.06 | 3 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

On Monday, President Bush signed into law the Henry J. Hyde United States and India Nuclear Cooperation Promotion Act of 2006. The Federation of American Scientists strongly supports better ties—economic, cultural, technical, even security ties—with India. Specifically with energy production, there are many ways in which U.S. know-how could help India and the technology flow is not all one way, for example, India is, along with the United States, one of the world’s leaders in wind energy. But India made tacit acceptance of their nuclear weapons program the price of better relations. The Federation strongly opposed the nuclear deal because of the proliferation implications. We organized petitions to Congress. Thirty seven Nobel Prize winners from our Board of Sponsors signed a letter to the Congressional leadership opposing the agreement. We had a press conference where Michael Krepon and Len Weiss argued against the agreement and we released the Nobelist letter. In the end, however, the president and the Congress seem to have accepted the price set by India and here we are.

As I have written elsewhere, there was much honest disagreement about the US-India nuclear deal. Analysts whom I deeply respect came out on the other side. I think virtually everyone (I will return to that “virtually” in a moment) recognized that there was some conflict between our non-proliferation goals and our desire for better relations with India so it came down to weighing these competing alternatives. Some believed that the benefit of improved relations outweighed the proliferation costs. I would be more sympathetic to that position if I believed it were a fundamental tradeoff but it was an artificial choice imposed by the Indians. The United States and India could have agreed that their nuclear weapons program was a sore point that would be dealt with sometime in the indefinite future and still have gone forward with mutually rewarding cooperation in many other areas.

Debate in the Congress made clear the great desire for better relations with India and treated the proliferation, not as a central issue, but as a side problem that could be dealt with. Based on press accounts and emails I received in reaction to my own statements in the press (an admittedly unscientific input sample), it was clear that the Indians have a very different perspective; they seem to overwhelming view the agreement as recognition of India as a legitimate nuclear power. The issue that came up most consistently in emails was the injustice of China’s being in the nuclear “club” but not India. A very different emphasis than seen from Washington.

I suspect that the administration does not see a tradeoff between better relations with India and nonproliferation because it is not concerned about proliferation in general. The administration seems to be concerned only about nuclear weapons in the hands of regimes we don’t like. Moreover, it sees a robust Indian nuclear program as a welcome counter to a nuclear China.

Also, we should be clear on what this legislation is, and is not. We use the shorthand of “India nuclear deal” but this legislation is not the “deal,” it simply sets out the rules for reviewing whatever deal is eventually worked out. It is radically different from the proposal the president first presented to Congress, which basically asked Congress for pre-approval of whatever the president and industry later decided. Congress rejected that out of hand. Any future deal will require approval from both houses of Congress. The Senate version made further nuclear cooperation contingent on a presidential determination India was meeting certain conditions, for example, help with reining in Iran’s nuclear program. In conference, the weaker House language won out so now the president does not need to make a determination, he simply has to report on progress.

Finally, one interesting semantic note: I found it fascinating how the Congressional debate and many commentators lauded India for its excellent non-proliferation track record, in marked contrast with Pakistan. This praise depends on a most peculiar definition of “proliferation.” What apparently is meant is that India has not exported its nuclear technology to other countries. Building your own bomb using supposedly civilian imported reactors is, apparently, not “proliferation.” By this definition, Pakistan is a proliferator but, as far as we know, North Korea and Iran are not nuclear proliferators because they have only imported, not exported, nuclear technology. Curious.