March issue 2006

By | News & Politics | Published 18 years ago

Recent events on the world stage indicate that accepted international rules on non-proliferation are selectively applied in the post-9/11 world. While Iran, a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, cannot exploit peaceful uses of nuclear energy, India, which has defied world concerns on nuclearisation for over four decades, can buy breeder nuclear reactors for military use. Not surprisingly, in both cases, the one country that stands out as the vital player is the United States of America.

Despite hectic negotiations marred by an eight-month long stalemate, the U.S. administration finally gave in to the Indian position. Now, only 14 of 22 breeder reactors will be put under civilian control and thus be subject to international inspections. Delivery is scheduled to be complete by 2016.

The deal marks Washington’s approval of India’s status as a nuclear-weapons power. Now with the incorporation of sophisticated new technology, New Delhi not only boosts its nuclear weapons capability, but is a major step closer to being fully self-sufficient energy-wise.

There are slips between the cup and the lip, though, as the deal requires approval from Congress, which is home to some staunch critics of ‘the nuclear gamble.’ However, Republicans as well as Democrats are expected to eventually approve the deal owing to exaggerated power projections for China. Defence-policy decision-makers and think tanks in the United States already view the modernisation process of Chinese armed forces as a huge threat.

At the same time, the international Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) must also approve the agreement. The 44-nation assembly will stipulate and verify that the vital nuclear fuel for these reactors will be used for peaceful purposes — i.e. domestic energy requirements. Not being part of the NPT, India cannot receive any nuclear technology know-how or equipment from NSG members. Further, by staying outside the NPT agreement, India is not bound to limit the amount of fissile material it produces. This worries proliferation opponents who fear that India may opt to make more bombs and set off an arms race in Asia.

Though nuclear-weapons states, excluding China, will extend their support to the US-India deal, many principled nations such as Canada, Australia, Norway and Japan may try to block the move.

Nonetheless, India’s recent success at the nuclear negotiation table is nothing short of impressive and has left many non-proliferation advocates scratching their heads. Somehow, after three decades of pariah status, India has tapped billions of dollars of foreign atomic technology and fuel to meet its soaring energy needs.

For most US politicians, policy-makers and pundits, the clearest gain out of the bargain is a closer relationship with India, seen as a potential counterweight both to militant Islam and China.

But there are other wins as well — not just for the U.S., but for the region, and the world, as a whole. Currently, only four of India’s nuclear facilities are subject to foreign safeguards — compare that to 14 reactors under scrutiny with this new agreement — and these present safeguards are positively less muscular than the new inspections to which India will be submitting. Also, under the new deal, India promises not to export nuclear equipment or material deemed sensitive by other nuclear powers.

The Bush administration argues that India is an exception, and the deal should not, therefore, set a precedent. For one thing, India never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, so it is different from North Korea and Iran, and lacked the fundamental commitment of safeguarding nuclear technology. Like the Indian media, the American media also cares little about the fate of the NPT. Both free presses gave an absolute approval of the deal, seeing it as a victory against communist China.

What the American media failed to reflect upon was the inevitable comparisons to Iran. The deal has weakened America’s critical position on the Iranian nuclear programme: the U.S. has just publicly endorsed a nuclear pariah.

Iranian diplomats have so far been able to engage their opponents at the negotiation table, but, until now, they were fast running out of ways to avoid UN Security Council action. With Bush signing the nuclear deal, and the IAEA director-general hailing it, Tehran has a whole new series of opportunities to exploit.

There are many less vocal experts who know how deadly the deal could be for US nuclear policy pursued over decades. For example, Baker Spring of the Heritage Foundation categorically termed the act as “effectively abandoning the NPT regime.” The US-India joint statement clearly signals a change in US nuclear non-proliferation policy.

Spring believes that Congress should clearly state that it is US policy to oppose any modification to the NPT to expand the number of recognised weapons states beyond the existing five. Congress should also prohibit nuclear cooperation with de facto nuclear weapons states engaged in “second tier” proliferation, he said. India and other de facto nuclear weapons states should not benefit from nuclear cooperation if they fail to observe the standards established for responsible nuclear supplier states to limit the further spread of nuclear weapons.

The Iranian media says the deal has opened new doorways for a cleaner and more secure global energy future. It makes the United States an essential partner as India normalises its rising position in the community of nations.

“With one simple move the president has blown a hole in the nuclear rules that the entire world has been playing by and broken his own word to assure that we will not ship nuclear technology to India without the proper safeguards,” said Edward Markey, co-chair of the bi-partisan task force on non-proliferation.

Similarly, Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association faulted the White House for a “rush to meet artificial deadlines (that) sold out core non-proliferation values” in favour of a deal that would “implicitly endorse, if not indirectly assist, the further growth of India’s nuclear arsenal.”

The Iranians have gone even further with President Ahmadinejad stating, “Regrettably, most international organisations have turned into political organisations and the influence of great powers prevents them from taking fair and legally sound decisions.” Then, in the same breath, he added, “The IAEA’s (International Atomic Energy Agency’s) treatment of the Islamic Republic of Iran is politically motivated.”

The IAEA’s 35-nation board of governors will convene on March 6 to weigh a report by the IAEA chief saying essentially that Iran has ignored a February 4 call to re-impose a suspension of enrichment work to regain world trust.

Beyond a war of words, Iran will look to dissenting nations, hoping that double standards cannot prevail everywhere. And they may find help in Europe. The German media has been extremely bitter over the deal.

Speaking to Newsline from Tehran, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said it all. “We are being suspected of running a parallel nuclear weapons programme, but the Indians have scores of nuclear weapons as well as a delivery system…The agreement on transfer of nuclear technology to India is the latest manifestation of US regard for the international regime. Definitely, it gives us more options but also puts many powerful nations in an awkward position.”