U.S.-Indian Nuclear Prospects Murky

Wade Boese

U.S. lawmakers and foreign governments are questioning President George W. Bush’s pledge this summer to engage in unrestricted civilian nuclear trade with India. Members of Congress are particularly concerned with India’s failure to align itself with U.S. positions on Iran.

On July 18, Bush announced that he would ask Congress to modify U.S. law and permit the United States to supply India with nuclear materials and technologies to produce nuclear energy. (See ACT, September 2005.) He also said he would ask foreign governments to adjust similar international restrictions. Washington had clamped down on such trade following India’s 1974 explosion of a nuclear device and cajoled other states in the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to follow suit in 1992. Group members seek to coordinate their nuclear export controls to prevent the spread of nuclear arms.

The administration did not consult with Congress or foreign capitals before the president’s move. Top administration officials attribute this lapse to the last-minute nature of the agreement. Testifying Sept. 8 before the House International Relations Committee, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns noted, “[W]e actually reached this agreement largely through discussions that Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice had the day prior to [Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s] visit and the morning of the visit.”

At the hearing, several legislators endorsed enhanced ties with India but also aired qualms about the proposed deal. Foremost among their concerns was whether India would side with the United States in pressing Iran to permanently shelve its ambitions and efforts to produce its own nuclear fuel, including uranium enrichment. Uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing can be used to produce both nuclear energy and weapons.

Indian officials say they oppose Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, but they have not gone so far as to say that Iran should not be allowed to operate enrichment and reprocessing facilities. New Delhi also has resisted U.S. entreaties to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for possible punitive action regarding its past illicit nuclear activities. Indian officials, who are seeking a gas pipeline deal and closer ties with Tehran, repeatedly say they want to see the Iran issue resolved “through discussion, not through confrontation.”

In its first test on the issue since the July deal, India sided with the United States and the European Union Sept. 24 on an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors resolution implying that Iran might be referred to the UN Security Council for failing to comply with its safeguards agreement with the agency. Such agreements are designed to ensure that the IAEA can verify that countries do not use their civilian nuclear programs to build nuclear weapons.

Nonetheless, Indian officials claimed they had not changed their fundamental views on Iran’s behavior. “We were opposed to the matter being referred to the UN Security Council at this stage because we did not believe that this was justified in the circumstances,” said a statement from the Indian government. It added, “Iran has the inalienable right to pursue a peaceful nuclear energy [program] and we must respect that right.”

The Indian action followed sharp complaints from Capitol Hill about India’s behavior vis-à-vis Iran. “If we are turning ourselves into a pretzel to accommodate India, I want to be damn sure that India is mindful of U.S. policies in critical areas such as U.S. policy toward Iran,” said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House International Relations Committee at the panel’s Sept. 8 hearing. Lantos warned that “anything less than full support will imperil the expansion of U.S. nuclear and security cooperation with New Delhi.” Several Democratic and Republican representatives endorsed or echoed Lantos’ comments.

Bush administration officials at the hearing also agreed that India faces a decision. Burns declared, “[W]e want Indian support and expect Indian support” on Iran. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph added, “[I]t’s a time of choice not just for India, but…for Russia, for China, for others who are on the fence right now on the issue of Iran, and specifically, referring Iran to the Security Council.”

Still, lawmakers’ reservations about providing India with nuclear goods extend beyond their concerns about New Delhi’s relations with Iran. A few worried that fulfilling the president’s initiative with a country such as India, which acquired nuclear weapons outside the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), might weaken other states’ support for the accord. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said he saw “difficulty in urging nations to either join or stay in the NPT when other nations are allowed to enjoy the benefits of nuclear technology without being in the NPT.” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) also questioned the possibility of setting off “a negative and damaging domino effect.”

The Senate has yet to hold a hearing on the proposed U.S.-Indian cooperation. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) has suggested he has many questions about future implementation of the deal. In a July 26 statement, Lugar said he wanted to “examine [the deal’s] possible impact on U.S. nonproliferation policy.”

How the administration intends to follow through on the president’s pledge remains undecided. Joseph said the administration had still not settled on whether or how to alter or waive U.S. law restricting nuclear trade with India. “We have not made a determination as to how we see the best path forward,” he stated.

Administration officials say they want to consult with Congress fully before formulating a legislative plan of action. However, the administration has not said if it will ask congressional committees to mark up the legal fixes as separate legislation or attach them to an existing bill, which would minimize the possibility for lawmakers to seek changes.

Moreover, Burns testified that India would need to start fulfilling its side of the bargain to separate its civilian and military facilities and submit its civilian facilities to international supervision before U.S. law would be changed. “We can’t seek a waiver from existing legislation until India begins to show us that it is moving to meet its commitment,” Burns said.

Indian officials hold the opposite view. Singh told the Indian parliament July 29 that, before India subjects its facilities to greater international scrutiny, “we will ensure that all restrictions on India have been lifted.”

The two sides have established a working group to hash out a schedule for implementing the agreement. The working group has met twice but has not yet ironed out a timetable. The next meeting will occur in late October when Burns travels to New Delhi.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) spokesperson Melissa Fleming told Arms Control Today Sept. 19 that India had not yet approached the agency about making additional Indian facilities available to international monitoring.

The administration appears further along in its thinking on what it will ask the 45-member NSG to do to facilitate Bush’s plan. Joseph contended the United States will not seek to change the group’s rule that nuclear importers subject all their nuclear facilities and activities to international supervision. Instead, Joseph said the United States would ask the NSG to grant an exemption to India, which vows it will never accept intrusive oversight on its entire nuclear apparatus. NSG members are likely to discuss the India issue at a mid-October meeting.

France, Russia, and the United Kingdom have all indicated they will welcome the U.S. initiative. Moscow, which has previously shipped nuclear fuel to India in defiance of the NSG, and Paris are particularly eager to do business with India. But Washington has to win over more than just these three states because the NSG operates by consensus.

Although many NSG members support improving relations with India, some question whether expanding nuclear cooperation is the right way to achieve that objective. Morten Aasland, minister counselor at the Embassy of Norway in Washington, D.C., said at a Sept. 16 Arms Control Association press briefing that “there is a clear recognition that this is a very complicated issue, a potential torpedo, for the whole arrangement.” Norway currently holds the group’s rotating chairmanship. Officials from some NSG members told Arms Control Today in September interviews that the group is unlikely to move on the U.S. proposal until after Congress acts.