Bet on India

Sunday, July 29, 2007

IN LARGE PART, modern U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy began with India. India received U.S. aid under the "Atoms for Peace" program of the early Cold War era -- only to lose its U.S. fuel supply because India, which had refused to sign the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), exploded a nuclear "device" in 1974. Decades of U.S. noncooperation with India's civilian atomic energy program were intended to teach India, and the world, a lesson: You will not prosper if you go nuclear outside the system of international safeguards.

Friday marked another step toward the end of that policy -- also with India. The Bush administration and New Delhi announced the principles by which the United States will resume sales of civilian nuclear fuel and technology to India, as promised by President Bush in July 2005. The fine print of the agreement, which must still be approved by the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group and by Congress, has not yet been released. But the big picture is clear: The administration is betting that the benefits to the United States and the world of a "strategic partnership" with India outweigh the risks of a giant exception to the old rules of the nonproliferation game.

There are good reasons to make the bet. India is a booming democracy of more than 1 billion people, clearly destined to play a growing role on the world stage. It can help the United States as a trading partner and as a strategic counterweight to China and Islamic extremists. If India uses more nuclear energy, it will emit less greenhouse gas. Perhaps most important, India has developed its own nuclear arsenal without selling materials or know-how to other potentially dangerous states. This is more than can be said for Pakistan, home of the notorious A.Q. Khan nuclear network.

You can call this a double standard, as some of the agreement's critics do: one set of rules for countries we like, another for those we don't. Or you can call it realism: The agreement provides for more international supervision of India's nuclear fuel cycle than there would be without it. For example, it allows India to reprocess atomic fuel but at a new facility under International Atomic Energy Agency supervision, to protect against its diversion into weapons. The case for admitting India to the nuclear club is based on the plausible notion that the political character of a nuclear-armed state can be as important, or more important, than its signature on the NPT. North Korea, a Stalinist dictatorship, went nuclear while a member of the NPT; the Islamic Republic of Iran appears headed down the same road. Yet India's democratic system and its manifest interest in joining the global free-market economy suggest that it will behave responsibly.

Or so it must be hoped. The few details of the agreement released Friday suggest that it is very favorable to India indeed, while skating close to the edge of U.S. law. For example, the United States committed to helping India accumulate a nuclear fuel stockpile, thus insulating New Delhi against the threat, provided for by U.S. law, of a supply cutoff in the unlikely event that India resumes weapons testing. Congress is also asking appropriate questions about India's military-to-military contacts with Iran and about New Delhi's stubborn habit of attending meetings of "non-aligned" countries at which Cuba, Venezuela and others bash the United States. As Congress considers this deal, India might well focus on what it can do to show that it, too, thinks of the new strategic partnership with Washington as a two-way street.

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