Sunday, March 05, 2006

We Are (Aren't) Safer With India in the Nuclear Club

The New York Times
We Are (Aren't) Safer With India in the Nuclear Club


HAS President Bush just made the world a safer or a more dangerous place?

That question lingered after he reached a deal with India last week recognizing that India is never giving up its nuclear weapons, and declaring that a country America once treated as a nuclear pariah could now be trusted.

In doing so, Mr. Bush took a step in his efforts to rewrite the world's longstanding rules that for more than 30 years have forbidden providing nuclear technology to countries that do not sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"I'm trying to think differently," Mr. Bush said in New Delhi, referring to the administration's argument that a new system is needed. But in treating India as a special case — a "strategic relationship" — he has so far declined to define general rules for everyone.

In essence, Mr. Bush is making a huge gamble — critics say a dangerous one — that the United States can control proliferation by single-handedly rewarding nuclear states it considers "responsible," and punishing those it declares irresponsible. For those keeping a scorecard, India is in the first camp, Iran is in the second, and no one in the administration wants to talk, at least on the record, about Israel or Pakistan — two allies that have embraced the bomb, but not the treaty.

So will other countries with nuclear ambitions react by becoming more responsible, as the administration hopes, or more envious and more determined than ever to expand their own arsenals? And will India use its new access to American-branded nuclear fuel to free up its domestic supplies of uranium to make bomb fuel for new weapons? And how will the deal affect the tense relationship between India and Pakistan, or for that matter China?

Perhaps the strongest and most discussed critique of the deal goes like this: Mr. Bush's timing could not be worse. In the eyes of his critics, he is creating a double standard by legitimizing an Indian weapons program that only eight years ago led Washington to impose huge sanctions, while demanding, in the same week, that Iran and North Korea give up any capacity to make their own nuclear fuel.

Mr. Bush, notes Ashton B. Carter, a nuclear expert at Harvard, declared nearly two years ago that there should be no new nuclear states, a concept that "was violated irrevocably" when Mr. Bush and the Indians reached agreement on the broad outline of this deal last summer. Now, he says, the deal at least puts the United States in the position of dealing directly with India's plans to maintain or expand its arsenal.

But the new deal may have solved one problem at the expense of creating new ones. Mr. Bush's team says it designed the India deal as a way to build a "strategic partnership" with the world's largest democracy, after decades of estrangement. India has proved itself a responsible power, Mr. Bush said. It also does not hurt that the country is one of the fastest-growing emerging markets, a favorite destination for technology companies, and a potential friend if trouble breaks out in tense relationships with China and Pakistan.

The part of the deal the administration likes to talk about allows India to buy American fuel for its civilian reactors for the first time, in exchange for opening them to international inspection. But India only designated 14 of its sites as "civilian" plants that it permanently guarantees can be inspected (up from four a few months ago), meaning that the additional eight can be used to make bomb fuel.

That part of the deal drives its critics up the cooling tower.

The administration never expected India's nuclear establishment to give up its ability to make bomb-grade fuel. So the administration's negotiator "caved on that one early on," in the words of Robert J. Einhorn, a nonproliferation expert who served under President Clinton and in the early days of Mr. Bush's tenure.

Critics have noted that since the United States would now sell India fuel for its newly declared civilian reactors — assuming Congress goes along — the Indians can devote their domestic uranium supply to weapons. "It substantially expands the supply of uranium the Indians have for military purposes," said Mr. Einhorn.

Mr. Bush argues that the Indians were going to build more weapons anyway.

And he said on Thursday in New Delhi that a way had be found to help India build safe civilian nuclear plants. Otherwise, it and China, the other country with a billion-plus population and a rising appetite for energy supplies, would end up struggling with each other and the West over resources to keep their economies growing.

Mr. Bush puts that as a pocketbook issue: "Increasing demand for oil from America, from India and China, relative to a supply that's not keeping up with demand, causes our fuel prices to go up," he said. "And so, to the extent that we can reduce demand for fossil fuels, it will help the American consumer."

"It's a start," said Xenia Dormandy, a Southeast Asia expert who was in on the early days of the deal as an official at the National Security Council, before leaving for Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "It acknowledges that over the years, India has played according to the rules, never proliferated, and it makes more sense to bring a rising power into the system rather than treat them like we've treated them for 30 years."

Ms. Dormandy applauds the deal for another reason: the politics of Pakistan, the nuclear power next door, is driven by jealousy over anything that India gets. The government there, she argued, may be driven to clean up its nuclear act in hopes of one day getting a similar deal.

Maybe so, but it could be a long wait: Robert Blackwill, the former American ambassador to India and an early architect of the agreement, said that because of the huge nuclear black market that Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear engineer, operated from Islamabad for two decades, "there's not the slightest possibility that this deal is going to be made available to Pakistan." But if there is a plan to keep Pakistan from boosting its own relatively small arsenal to keep up with India — or China from doing the same — no one in the adminstration has yet explained it.

That is why some experts believe the deal could make the world more dangerous: Even if India is a responsble player, the deal could touch off a regional race to produce more bomb fuel. In that case, more of that fuel would be floating around — perhaps to tempt terrorists. If, on the other hand, India shows restraint and Mr. Bush's gamble pays off, other nations that defiantly built their own weapons may gradually be drawn back into a new club whose membership rules are still being written.