The debate over shipments of nuclear fuel to India is one with good guys on both sides, which is refreshing in itself. This is not a contest between the children of light and the children of darkness; the central question is simply whether the general purpose of encouraging nuclear restraint in the world will be served better by shipping the fuel or not. With all respect for the excellent intentions of those who are against the shipments, I submit that they are wrong on the merits. Failure to allow these shipments will predictably serve all the forces already working against nuclear restraint in India -- it will be a self-inflicted wound for the general cause of nonproliferation.

To understand this reality, it is necessary only to consider this matter as it looks to Indians. To them, the starting point is the 1963 Agreement for Cooperation between our two countries. That agreement, in their view, can be changed only with the consent of both sides, and it is not superseded by our Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978. Moreover, they have lawyers to defend this view, just as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and many in Congress have lawyers for the opposite position. That is not surprising, because the intersection between international agreements and national statutes is a natural habitat for legal dispute. On the naked merits, there is room for both legal and political sympathy with each side.

But what will decide the effects of this affair in India is that Indians think. And what they will think, if shipments are ended, is that the United States has broken its word as part of a process of pressure to which no self-respecting nation can submit -- and Indians have at least an average amount of self-respect. They will then declare that our action has ended the 1963 agreement. This position will be unchallengeable in India and widely supported abroad. The Indian government will then feel free, as it does not today, to make any use it likes of the ton and a half of plutonium it can get from the fuel we have already supplied. This freedom might or might not be used to make weapons, but the end of all external restraint on the use of the Tarapur plutonium is the inescapable political consequence of any American decision to end shipments.

The Tarapur plutonium would be enough to make at least a hundred fission weapons of uncertain but utterly non-trivial yield. It could also be reprocessed as an alternative source of reactor fuel, thus setting an example to the world that we could hardly cheer. I find it hard to see how opening the door to such results would be good for the general cause of nonproliferation.

Nor should we suppose that the stiff position taken by India on this question is a matter of bluff, or the result of some special pride in Indira Gandhi. The Indian stand has been essentially the same under both Morarji Desai and Gandhi, for the excellent reason that any other position would be regarded as outrageous by Indian public opinion. (That countries with free elections often respond to such public sentiment will surely not surprise inhabitants of Washington.)

And the Indians are not bluffing, because there is no longer any American monopoly on the kind of nuclear fuel Tarapur consumes. The likeliest alternate supplier is the Soviet Union; would such a switch be a gain for the good cause?

For reasons unknown to me, the administration has spoken softly on this matter, but its position is correct, and it is not the result of any shallow desertion of nonproliferation in deference to geopolitical crisis. It is the cause of nonproliferation itself that should persuade us not to kill the 1963 agreement.

That agreement is not perfect: it bears the birthmarks of the excessive enthusiasm for nuclear sales abroad that was prevalent in the administration of that time -- nostra culpa . But it is vastly better than nothing, and India has respected it; the Indian explosion did not come from Tarapur.

If we end the shipments, the agreement too will end. We should avoid that result, even at the price of some understandable disappointment over the difficulty of exporting virtue by statute.