THE STATE DEPARTMENT announced the other day that it was sending two proposed export licenses to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for its approval. The licenses are for two years' worth of nuclear fuel for India's Tarapur reactor. They are further evidence of the Carter administration's backpedaling in its efforts to curb nuclear proliferation.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 sets the terms of this country's nuclear export policy. Its central provision is that every recipient nation must submit all its non-military nuclear facilities to international safeguards and inspection. The law allows a two-year grace period during which exports may be made to a country that does not meet this test, while negotiations to remedy the failure are under way. In India's case, persistent efforts by this country to reach a safeguard agreement -- or even a mutually face-saving facsimile of one -- were repeatedly rebuffed by India, and the negotiations have been broken off.

In addition to the requirement for comprehensive safeguards, the law prescribes several other criteria that the NRC must certify are met before it can approve a particular export. Some of these, especially the provision that no export will be used for a "nuclear explosive device," are not very likely to be met by India, whose current prime minister was a chief proponent of its 1974 nucler bomb test. The NRC is therefore likely to vote against the proposed exports.

The exports will not stop there, however, because the president may override the NRC's decision by finding that failure to make the export will "jeopardize the common defense and security." The State Department has already announced that President Carter intends to use his authority in this case. This is the crux of the matter: Does the threat posed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan justify a major concession on nuclear proliferation in the name of "removing an irritant" from U.S.-Indian relations? Is there really a valid linkage here?

The answer is that while immediate and superficial relations may improve, respect -- and the longer term stability that flows from it -- will almost certainly decline. The lesson for India, and for all the other potential proliferators who are watching closely, is that a determined "No" is enough to make the United States back down -- even on issues it considers of high priority. In Pakistan, of course, the reponse will be an increased determination to complete that country's own nuclear weapons program. Can anyone believe the greater likelihood of a nuclear arms race in South Asia is a helpful response to the security threat posed by the Soviet advance -- anyone who is sane, that is? Looking back on this moment several years from now -- as we can now look on the key failure to protest the Indian explosion of 1974 -- it will probably seem clear that the administration would have done far better to stick to its own proliferation policy.