The U.S.-India Nuclear Deal

Esther Pan; Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer
Council on Foreign Relations
Thursday, September 4, 2008 11:37 AM


The U.S. Congress on October 1, 2008, gave final approval to an agreement facilitating nuclear cooperation between the United States and India. The deal is seen as a watershed in U.S.-India relations and introduces a new aspect to international nonproliferation efforts. First introduced in the joint statement released by President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on July 18, 2005, the deal lifts a three-decade U.S. moratorium on nuclear trade with India. It provides U.S. assistance to India's civilian nuclear energy program, and expands U.S.-India cooperation in energy and satellite technology. But critics in the United States say the deal fundamentally reverses half a century of U.S. nonproliferation efforts, undermines attempts to prevent states like Iran and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, and potentially contributes to a nuclear arms race in Asia. "It's an unprecedented deal for India," says Charles D. Ferguson, science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "If you look at the three countries outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)-Israel, India, and Pakistan-this stands to be a unique deal."

What are the terms of the deal?

The details of the deal include the following:

What kind of technology would India receive in return?

India would be eligible to buy U.S. dual-use nuclear technology, including materials and equipment that could be used to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium, potentially creating the material for nuclear bombs. It would also receive imported fuel for its nuclear reactors.

What do proponents say about the deal?

Proponents of the agreement argue it will bring India closer to the United States at a time when the two countries are forging a strategic relationship to pursue their common interests in fighting terrorism, spreading democracy, and preventing the domination of Asia by any single power. Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace -- currently serving as an adviser to the State Department on Indian affairs -- says in congressional testimony that the deal recognizes this growing relationship by engaging India, which has proven it is not a nuclear proliferation risk. Other experts say the deal lays out the requirements for India to be recognized as a responsible steward of nuclear power. "This is part of a process of making India a more durable and reliable nuclear partner," Schaffer says.

Other experts say the deal:

What are the objections to the agreement?

Critics call the terms of the agreement overly beneficial for India and lacking sufficient safeguards to prevent New Delhi from continuing to produce nuclear weapons. "We are going to be sending, or allowing others to send, fresh fuel to India -- including yellowcake and lightly enriched uranium -- that will free up Indian domestic sources of fuel to be solely dedicated to making many more bombs than they would otherwise have been able to make," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving awareness of proliferation issues. While India has pledged that any U.S. assistance to its civilian nuclear energy program will not benefit its nuclear weapons program, experts say India could use the imported nuclear fuel to feed its civilian energy program while diverting its own nuclear fuel to weapons production. New Delhi has done similar things in the past; India claimed it was using nuclear technology for civilian purposes right up until its first nuclear weapons test in 1974. A Congressional Research Service report (PDF) on the agreement states, "There are no measures in this global partnership to restrain India's nuclear weapons program."

Other objections raised by experts include:

Who needs to approve the agreement?

The final terms of the nuclear deal need approval from several sources before they can be implemented. The bodies required to approve the deal include:

What effect will the U.S.-India deal have on the NPT?

It could gut the agreement, experts say. Article 1 of the treaty says nations that possess nuclear weapons agree not to help states that do not possess weapons to acquire them. Albright says that without additional measures to ensure a real barrier exists between India's military and civilian nuclear programs, the agreement "could pose serious risks to the security of the United States" by potentially allowing Indian companies to proliferate banned nuclear technology around the world. In addition, it could lead other suppliers -- including Russia and China -- to bend the international rules so they can sell their own nuclear technology to other countries, some of them hostile to the United States. On the other hand, experts like Gahlaut argue the NPT was already failing in its mission to prevent proliferation. She says many countries -- including North Korea, Libya, Iran, and Iraq -- have cheated while being signatories of the NPT.

What role does China play in the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal?

It is a motivating factor in the deal, some experts say. China's rise in the region is prompting the United States to seek a strategic relationship with India. "The United States is trying to cement its relationship with the world's largest democracy in order to counterbalance China," Ferguson says. The Bush administration is "hoping that latching onto India as the rising star of Asia could help them handle China," Sokolski says

But other experts say the growing economic relationship between China and India is so critical to New Delhi that its interests in China cannot be threatened or replaced by any agreement with the United States. Indians "have no interest whatsoever in trying to contain China because they believe this could be a self-fulfilling prophesy, and their whole policy is to seek the best possible relationship with China," Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. ambassador to India, said at a Council meeting February 23. Other experts worry U.S. nuclear aid to India could foster a dangerous nuclear rivalry between India and China. Though India has a strong interest in building economic relations with China, New Delhi is still wary of China's military rise in the region.

What effect will the deal have on U.S. and Indian relations with Pakistan?

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, who has suffered fierce criticism at home -- and survived two assassination attempts -- or his strong alliance with the United States since 9/11, has not received a similar deal on nuclear energy from Washington. Some experts say this apparent U.S. favoritism toward India could increase the nuclear rivalry between the intensely competitive nations, and potentially raise tensions in the already dangerous region. "My impression is that [the Pakistanis] are worried this will feed the Indian nuclear weapons program and therefore weaken deterrence," Blackwill said. Other experts say the two countries, both admittedly now nuclear, could be forced to deal more cautiously with each other. Pakistan is already a proliferation risk: Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan's illicit nuclear network, revealed in 2004, shocked the world with its brazen trade of nuclear technology. Some experts worry the U.S.-India deal could prompt Pakistan to go elsewhere for similar terms.

What's the history of India's nuclear program?

In the 1950s, the United States helped India develop nuclear energy under the Atoms for Peace program. The United States built a nuclear reactor for India, provided nuclear fuel for a time, and allowed Indian scientists study at U.S. nuclear laboratories. In 1968, India refused to sign the NPT, claiming it was biased. In 1974, India tested its first nuclear bomb, showing it could develop nuclear weapons with technology transferred for peaceful purposes. As a result, the United States isolated India for twenty-five years, refusing nuclear cooperation and trying to convince other countries to do the same. But since 2000, the United States has moved to build a "strategic partnership" with India, increasing cooperation in fields including spaceflight, satellite technology, and missile defense.

© 2008