- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2006

Like the eager parents of an arranged marriage, President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have shaken hands, toasted the future and agreed to a dowry long coveted by New Delhi — an historic civilian nuclear agreement that tacitly recognizes India as the world’s sixth nuclear state.

Both leaders must now convince reluctant compatriots back home to go along with the deal, raising the question that confronts every arranged marriage — will love follow?

Unlike nuptials of the past, when Indian brides and grooms met for the first time at the altar, the United States and India have been getting to know one another since President Clinton’s landmark visit in 2000. By then, New Delhi had largely shed its Nehruvian socialist past, and today Washington sees India as the attractive partner it is — the world’s largest democracy and second-fastest growing economy and a reliable partner in the war on terrorism and reconstruction in Afghanistan.

But standing in the way of a more perfect union is India’s small arsenal of nuclear weapons, which under U.S. law and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty prevents New Delhi from receiving nuclear assistance for its civilian energy program. Intended as the crowing jewel of a new U.S.-Indian strategic partnership, the nuclear deal unveiled in March has triggered grumbling on both sides.

American critics say Mr. Bush gave away too much — giving India sensitive nuclear technology without capping New Delhi’s production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or opening its entire civilian program to international inspection. It is “nuclear hypocrisy,” they cry, to embrace Indian nuclear ambitions while condemning those of Iran and North Korea.

Indian critics say just the opposite — that Mr. Singh gave away too much by agreeing to separate the country’s civilian and military nuclear programs, effectively limiting its fissile supplies and undermining New Delhi’s nuclear deterrent. The real “nuclear hypocrisy,” Indians say, is a nonproliferation treaty that arbitrarily recognized the “big five” nuclear states who had arsenals in 1968, but not India, which went nuclear later.

The new agreement perpetuates this hypocrisy, Indians complain. If Washington shares nuclear technology with Beijing, the great nuclear proliferator, why not India, with its solid record of preventing proliferation?

Imperfect though it may be, the nuclear agreement now before the U.S. Congress is like any dowry — turning it down risks spoiling the larger relationship. Indeed, overlooked in the current debate are the dangerous consequences if Congress rejects the agreement or imposes new conditions that make it a deal-breaker for New Delhi.

Even more than about technology, Indians see the deal as being about trust. Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, the chief Indian negotiator on the agreement, tells me that it “sends the political message that India is no longer perceived as a target, but as a partner.” K. Subrahmanyam, a former member of India’s National Security Council, says failure would result in a “total loss of trust” that could contaminate the entire U.S.-Indian political, economic and military relationship, including intelligence cooperation in the war on terrorism.

Mr. Singh, whose fragile ruling coalition survives with the support of leftist and communist parties, could suffer a fatal political blow for aligning India so closely with Washington. A senior aide to the prime minister tells me that the deal’s defeat would limit Mr. Singh’s ability to work with Washington and embolden anti-American voices in India, who could claim, “We told you so, never trust the Americans.”

Indeed, perhaps the greatest damage of the deal’s demise would be to the broader Asian power balance. Just as U.S. officials implicitly acknowledge democratic India’s potential role as counterweight to China, the deal’s ruin could achieve the precise opposite. New Delhi and Beijing pledged themselves last year to a new strategic partnership, and Moscow has pursued, without much success, greater Russian-Indian-Chinese cooperation. Failure of the U.S.-India nuclear agreement would “breathe a fresh dose of oxygen into the rapidly dying Moscow-New Delhi-Beijing triangle,” says Krishna Rasgotra, the former Indian foreign secretary.

Given the consequences of failure, blocking the agreement because of India’s limited economic, political and military ties with Iran — as some U.S. lawmakers have threatened — would be an historic blunder. Cooperation between Hindu India and Persian Iran, two ancient civilizations with deep cultural links, is natural and no threat to the United States.

In fact, despite Iranian threats that doing so could endanger negotiations on a new pipeline to bring Iranian natural gas to India, New Delhi has voted twice with the United States at the International Atomic Energy Agency against Iran’s nuclear program. It’s hard to imagine India taking similar risks in the future if Capitol Hill votes against India’s nukes today.

Three years ago, a young Indian bride named Nisha Sharma became an international celebrity when, at the altar, she called off her wedding after the groom’s family suddenly demanded a larger dowry than had been agreed upon.

American lawmakers take note: You go to the altar with the dowry you have, not the dowry you might want. Trying to renegotiate this nuclear deal could poison the U.S.-Indian relationship for years to come. And rather than love, only mistrust and missed opportunities will follow.

Stanley A. Weiss is founder and chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington.

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