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Good Nukes, Bad Nukes

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Juxtaposed this week are the two poles of the emerging world: India and Iran. They are alpha and omega, the dream and the nightmare. One symbolizes the promise of globalization, the other the threat of global disorder.

What they share, unfortunately, is a passion to be members of the nuclear club. India has nuclear weapons; Iran wants them. Between them stands the United States, trying to set rules that will apply to both -- rewarding the good boy while maintaining an ability to punish the bad one.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed that intelligence "is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time." That has always seemed to me like an argument for enlightened hypocrisy. And maybe it's the best explanation for why we should say yes to India's nukes and no to Iran's. The two cases are different because -- they're different. The same rules don't apply to both; one has shown that it is benign and the other behaves like a global outlaw.

President Bush's trip to India this week sets the nuclear issue in all its hypocritical glory. The centerpiece of the visit, it is hoped, will be an agreement that, in effect, validates India's accession as a nuclear weapons state in exchange for its acceptance of new safeguards on its civilian nuclear program. An Iranian observing Bush's visit might conclude that the lesson is that if you can somehow manage to build a nuclear bomb despite the West's antiproliferation efforts, you will eventually get away with it.

Iran would be dangerously mistaken if it made that assumption. The real lesson may be that rules are sometimes less important than behavior. The world is ready to accept India as a nuclear power because its actions have given other nations confidence that it seeks to play a stabilizing role. A world where behavior matters gets the incentives right: It forces Iran to demonstrate its reliability so that, over time, it can be seen in the same league as India and Pakistan.

One common thread in U.S. policy toward India and Iran is the insistence that enrichment and reprocessing of nuclear fuel be under some form of international supervision. The agreement Bush is seeking during his trip -- to separate India's civilian and military nuclear programs -- embodies that idea. So does Russia's proposal to provide enrichment for Iran's nuclear program. Iran suggested last weekend that it might accept this plan. Most observers remain dubious, but if Iran is really willing to outsource its civilian nuclear fuel, that might be a breakthrough.

The Bush administration is weighing a more ambitious idea that all nuclear enrichment and reprocessing should be capped -- so that no new country can join the club. Sen. Richard Lugar has submitted such a proposal, based on suggestions from Ashton B. Carter, a Harvard University expert in nuclear policy. Under the Lugar plan, countries that forgo their enrichment and reprocessing programs would have guaranteed access to nuclear fuel at reasonable prices. Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, proposes to take internationalization of fuel supplies a step further -- so that all enrichment and reprocessing would be under the IAEA's control.

How can the world foster civilian nuclear power without further proliferation of weapons? That conundrum was the starting point for the drafters of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in the 1960s, and it has become more urgent today. There's an emerging consensus that nuclear power is the best way for China and India to modernize without adding disastrously to global warming. John Ritch, head of the World Nuclear Association in London, argues that the world will need 10,000 civilian nuclear reactors by the end of the century, compared with 440 today. How can we manage this explosion of nuclear power while avoiding a mushroom cloud? That's the backdrop to our debate about India and Iran.

Harvard's Graham Allison tells his students that the Iranian nuclear issue is a "slow-motion Cuban missile crisis." By that, he means that miscalculation on either side could have catastrophic consequences for the world. Allison's famous study of the missile crisis, "Essence of Decision," explained how both firmness and flexibility allowed President Kennedy to avoid war. One of Kennedy's secrets, it could be argued, was a policy of strategic hypocrisy -- responding to a constructive Soviet message that could resolve the crisis and ignoring a subsequent belligerent one.

The West is still waiting for the constructive message from Tehran. In the meantime, we should all learn to live with a policy that says yes to India and no to Iran.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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