Why is the U.S. so anxious to save the nuclear deal with India?

An Air of Desperation


Brahma Chellaney

Asian Age, November 3, 2007


In its frantic efforts to salvage the nuclear deal, the United States is sending out a politically incorrect message — that the deal matters more to it than the very survival of the Manmohan Singh government. The deal has not only divided India like no other strategic issue since independence, but also plunged the world’s largest democracy into a political crisis, with the threat of a mid-term election looming large. Yet the unrelenting U.S. pressure on India to proceed with the deal has only intensified.


            An obvious question begging an answer is: What are the compelling interests America aims to advance through this deal that are prompting it to give high priority to getting this arrangement through, even if it results in Singh’s political downfall? Is the venerable Singh so dispensable for the U.S.?


The Congress Party, holding only 27.5 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats, needs allies to survive in power or to return to office in a new election. With not a single party today willing to help shore up the deal, the Congress does not wish to stake its future on that dicey, divisive issue.


Yet, from the time Sonia Gandhi and the prime minister last month pulled back from the political-precipice edge, the U.S. has piled up pressure on New Delhi, leaving no stone unturned to rescue the deal. Remember how President George W. Bush anxiously sought to reach the PM by telephone while the latter was travelling in Africa? This week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee to convey the same message — in the words of her spokesperson, “to urge the Indian government to move forward with this deal.”


To personally lobby Indian leaders, the White House sent Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in recent days. And as if India were a Pakistan, where Washington brokered a Pervez Musharraf-Benazir Bhutto deal to help keep its pet dictator in power, the U.S. is trying to cut a deal between the Congress Party and Bharatiya Janata Party, so as to save another deal dear to it. 


            By pulling out all the stops, the signs of desperation have become unmistakeable. In fact, since that famous Bush call to Singh, no day has passed without some senior U.S. official, diplomat or congressman telling India why it should seize the deal as a golden opportunity not to be missed. The U.S. ambassador to India, for his part, has seemingly returned to his old marketing job, hawking the deal door-to-door — from South Block offices to the homes of important politicians in town.


It is as if a vibrant India is really a dumb India that doesn’t know what is in its own interest and needs counsel from the other party in the deal. Besides prolonging India’s political crisis and keeping alive the spectre of a snap poll, such meddling, along with its unremitting advice, has become increasingly clamorous.


            Paulson, for example, counselled his host nation “to implement the agreement as soon as possible,” acknowledging that the U.S. has been “encouraging it to go forward as quickly as possible.” Kissinger weighed in with his ominous hints about the effect of the deal’s collapse on India’s credibility. The smooth-talking Nicholas Burns, now making almost a daily statement on the deal, declared from Washington: “We, and many other governments, believe that India should grab this opportunity and enter a new era of relations with the U.S.”


            Make no mistake: It is the U.S. which sees the deal as an irresistible opportunity, which, if taken advantage of, would bring lasting strategic benefits. There is thus dismay that Indian politics has stalled what the Bush administration had been savouring as a major foreign-policy accomplishment.


The U.S. got the deal largely on its terms. In addition to the 41 pages of India-specific conditions in the Hyde Act (passed with bipartisan support after closed-door briefings), the U.S. has concluded a so-called 123 agreement without permitting India upfront to reprocess, or providing for a dispute mechanism (like the arbitral tribunal found in the 123 accord with Tokyo), or explicitly linking perpetual international inspections to perpetual fuel supply. Of all the 123 agreements the U.S. currently has with partner-states, the one with India stands out for conferring enforceable rights only on the supplier-state.

That is why, as the state department reiterated this week, the U.S. will not accept renegotiation of the deal. Washington indeed wants New Delhi to speedily conclude a safeguards pact with the International Atomic Energy Agency because from then on, India would become a mere spectator, watching what additional conditions the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and the U.S. Congress may attach to the final deal.

America’s commercial interests in the deal are evident: The tens of billions of dollars worth of arms and reactor contracts it is likely to reap. Not so obvious is its huge strategic stake, which is two-fold.

First, the deal would open the path to rope in India more than just as a strategic partner. In a 21st-century world in which the concept of alliance is giving way to nations pursuing multiple partnerships to pursue a variety of interests with different players in diverse settings, the U.S. still fancies bringing in India as a new Japan or Britain — an ally that would faithfully follow the alliance leader.

Burns makes no bones about America’s intent. “I think Americans might be able to say 20 years from now, India is one of our two or three most important partners in the world. That will be a tremendous strategic change for us… You need friends, you need allies,” he said in an October 3 interview. At the Council on Foreign Relations on October 23, he amplified: “Twenty or 30 years from now, many Americans would say India is one of the two or three most important global partners — the way Japan and the European Union are today.”

Second, the deal is the means to achieve a central U.S. goal since the 1998 Indian tests — to prevent India’s rise as a full-fledged nuclear-weapons state and bring it into the U.S.-led non-proliferation regime (or, what Burns calls, the “non-proliferation mainstream”). Having failed to stop India from going overtly nuclear, the U.S. wants India’s capabilities to stay regionally confined (like Pakistan’s), even if that strategically disadvantages New Delhi vis-à-vis Beijing.

The first and second objectives are linked because, if this deal goes through, India would be saddled with a rudimentary and inadequate deterrent capability that would promote security dependency on the U.S., including for missile defence. Fostering security dependency is the key to winning and maintaining an ally.

In his 2004 book, Engaging India, Strobe Talbott wrote: “If there is a deal to be done with India, my guess is that it will be a version of the one offered by the Clinton administration and rejected by the BJP-led government. The four U.S.-proposed non-proliferation benchmarks put forward in 1998 — joining the CTBT, making progress on a fissile material treaty, exercising strategic restraint (by that or some other name), and meeting the highest standard of export controls… should remain the basis of the American policy into the future. That means the U.S. government should persist until the four areas of restraint become the basis of the Indian policy.”

That is exactly the line U.S. policy has followed. In the Bush deal with India, the second and fourth Clinton-prescribed benchmarks (progress on fissile material treaty and “comprehensive” export controls) find explicit mention in the original July 18, 2005, deal. The other two benchmarks are reflected in the enabling legislation, the Hyde Act, which seeks both to compel India to exercise strategic restraint and to drag it through the backdoor into an international pact rejected by the Senate — the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The test ban also is built into the 123 agreement implicitly through the incorporation of the U.S. “right of return.”

            The Bush team indeed managed to secure more: While the Vajpayee government was willing to open two indigenous power reactors at the most to international inspections as part of a deal, the Singh government has agreed to put 35 nuclear facilities, including eight existing indigenous power reactors, under IAEA safeguards of a kind applicable only to non-nuclear states — perpetual and legally irrevocable.

In addition, it has agreed gratuitously to shut down the Cirus research reactor by 2010, an action that would significantly affect India’s rate of production of weapons-grade plutonium. Given that fuel burn-up in power reactors produces plutonium of a quality less desirable for weapons and that the use of power stations for such purposes, in any case, makes little economic sense, India has relied on its Cirus and Dhruva research reactors to derive supergrade plutonium. And given that Dhruva, commissioned in 1985, faced major startup problems that took a long time to rectify, most of India’s cumulative historic production of weapons-grade plutonium has come from Cirus — a point noted by Paul Nelson et al in a 2006 paper funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

In asking New Delhi to dismantle Cirus, the U.S. has sought to crimp India’s nuclear-deterrent plans. As Undersecretary Robert G. Joseph had asserted, deal-related measures “must contribute to our non-proliferation goals.”

India could build a replacement reactor. But the long lead time needed to construct and commission such a reactor is bound to leave a major production shortfall. Yet, no explanation has been offered to the Indian public thus far as to why New Delhi, disregarding the advice of its Department of Atomic Energy, agreed to shut down the 40-MWth Cirus, which had been refurbished at a cost of millions of dollars and reopened only in 2004.

With all the U.S. benchmarks met, is it any surprise that Talbott now has turned from a critic to a proponent of the present deal, joining the “this-has-got-to-happen-soon” chorus and attacking the Singh government for “a very shortsighted calculation” in putting its survival ahead of the deal?

            The key point is that if this U.S.-dictated deal falls apart, it will not only deny America the handle it seeks on Indian policy and deterrent posture, but also its one-sidedly magnanimous terms are unlikely to be replicated in any future agreement. That is why Washington today is feverishly delivering the same two-word message: “Hurry up.”

Let’s be clear: Time is on India’s side. The real test the deal has to pass is whether it can survive a change of government both in New Delhi and Washington. And the test for Singh, given the upcoming Parliament session, is whether the deal can withstand what he has so far sought to thwart but now ought to allow — close legislative scrutiny.

After all, India should enter into the arrangement, not as a good deed for the U.S., but for its own good. Every right-thinking Indian would want U.S.-inspired technology controls against his country to go, but that can hardly justify “a deal at any cost” approach or the use of rose-coloured vision to sell Indians a fantasy. The present deal does not cover high-technology and civilian space controls against India and indeed leaves intact even restrictions on civil enrichment and reprocessing equipment transfers.

The current hold on the deal, forced by domestic political circumstances, underscores the vitality of Indian democracy. It can only help enhance India’s international stature and safeguard national interests.

© Asian Age, 2007

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