The Bush administration will have a tough time convincing skeptical members of Congress that its July 18 decision to undertake civilian nuclear cooperation with India will not undermine the U.S. commitment to nonproliferation.
Nearly eight weeks ago, as President Bush pledged to “work to achieve full civil nuclear energy cooperation with India” and “seek agreement from Congress to adjust U.S. laws and policies,” Washington’s nonproliferation lobby was mobilizing against the accord.
A hint of the hurdles to the initiative was provided at a House International Relations Committee hearing on Thursday. Some members of the panel voiced displeasure at not being consulted on the agreement, and others criticized India for ignoring U.S. concerns and engaging Iran in discussions over a gas pipeline.
Rep. Tom Lantos, senior Democrat on the panel, sought assurances that India would not disregard U.S. policies. “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,” he said.
“India cannot pursue a policy vis-a-vis Iran which takes no account of U.S. foreign-policy objectives,” the California Democrat said, adding that anything less than full support would imperil greater U.S. nuclear and security cooperation with India.
Rep. Jim Leach, Iowa Republican, contended the Bush administration faces a “vexing dilemma.” He said the administration had raised Indian expectations by making sensitive security commitments it cannot fulfill without legislative action by Congress.
A report by the Congressional Research Service, the public-policy research arm of Congress, lays out some of the questions stemming from the initiative.
If implemented, civil nuclear cooperation would dramatically shift U.S. nonproliferation policy toward India and “contravene the multilateral export-control guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which was formed in response to India’s proliferation,” it says.
India is not a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, told members of the House panel the agreement will have the effect of “progressively integrating India into the global nonproliferation order.” He was part of a team that hammered out last-minute details of the deal with the Indians.
Although India has demonstrated a strong commitment to protecting fissile materials and nuclear technology, it is in the interest of both countries that India’s isolation be brought to an end and that India be made part of a stable global nonproliferation order, he said.
Questions for lawmakers
The Congressional Research Service report mentioned questions that lawmakers could ask during the debate on the deal:
How complete are India’s declarations of civilian facilities?
How intrusively can the International Atomic Energy Agency inspect those facilities?
How well are India’s export controls functioning?
What are India’s plans for its nuclear-weapons program, and would U.S. assistance benefit that weapons program?
If India is prepared to take on responsibilities accepted by other nuclear-armed states, is it prepared to stop producing fissile material for weapons?
Is it prepared to declare some nuclear material as beyond its defense needs and put it under IAEA safeguards?
What impact will nuclear safeguards on civilian facilities have on India’s transparency efforts with Pakistan?
Concerns over initiative
American critics of the deal don’t disagree with the strategic goal of making India a major partner of the United States. Instead, said Robert Einhorn, a former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, they’re concerned about potential implications of the deal on efforts to curb proliferation globally.
They think it will be hard for the United States to persuade other countries to tighten nonproliferation rules at the same time it seeks to relax some rules it no longer finds convenient.
“The critics also believe the deal will reinforce the impression internationally that the Bush administration’s approach to nonproliferation is selective and self-interested, rather than consistent and principled, and will therefore provide an excuse for greater selectivity by countries like China and Russia,” said Mr. Einhorn, currently with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Proponents of nonproliferation think the deal brings only modest gains, in terms of Indian commitments, and creates major risks.
On the other hand, supporters of the accord, like Stephen P. Cohen of the Brookings Institution, say it actually “strengthens nonproliferation.”
For its part, India has promised to take several steps, including to identify and separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities and programs; declare its civilian facilities to the IAEA; voluntarily place civilian facilities under IAEA safeguards and continue its unilateral nuclear-test moratorium.
The Bush administration has begun to push New Delhi to honor these commitments. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh in New York next week to discuss a timeline for implementation of these commitments.
Mr. Burns said the Indians “understand we expect them to begin taking concrete steps in the weeks ahead.”
Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said the number of facilities and activities India puts under IAEA safeguards, and the speed with which it does so, “will directly affect the degree to which we will be able to build support for full civil nuclear cooperation with India in Congress and in the Nuclear Suppliers Group.”
However, the Congressional Research Service report called India’s commitments “insufficient,” and said there are no measures in the agreement to restrain India’s nuclear-weapons program.
A question being raised is how India, in the absence of full-scope safeguards, can provide adequate confidence that U.S. nuclear technology will not be diverted to build nuclear weapons.
Miriam Rajkumar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the obstacles that have cropped up are the consequences of rushing into the deal without sufficient “groundwork” by the Bush administration with members of Congress.
U.S. officials and Indian diplomats dismiss the notion that the deal was rushed through. The “process,” they point out, was set in motion by the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP). The NSSP included expanded cooperation in civil nuclear technology as one of three goals. “It is not something that was conjured out of a hat at the last moment,” said an Indian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
India’s ambassador in Washington, Ronen Sen, and his deputy, Raminder Jassal, have discussed the issue with members of Congress in Washington and beyond to allay their concerns. Sources privy to these discussions describe the response from the Americans as “thoughtful and constructive.”
Indian diplomats are confident that the “logic of the understanding is so compelling that once the hearings take place, members of the Senate and the House will see that this is something that benefits both countries.” Besides engaging members of Congress, the envoys have been talking to experts at think tanks, including those who have a longtime interest in nonproliferation issues.
“We don’t question their commitment to the kind of objectives that they have. But when they really look at the understandings completely dispassionately, they will find that these understandings do not in any way diminish but further the very goals they espouse,” a diplomatic source said.
Critics of the deal point out that the most important improvement would be an Indian commitment to stop producing fissile materials for nuclear weapons.
Citing Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran’s statement that India “is willing to assume the same responsibilities and practices — no more and no less — as other nuclear states,” Mr. Einhorn said the five original nuclear-weapons states have all stopped producing fissile materials for nuclear weapons.
“If India is genuinely interested only in a credible minimum-deterrent capability, rather than an open-ended nuclear program, perhaps it will soon decide that it can afford to join the others,” he said. This would eliminate almost all opposition to American nuclear commerce with India, he added.
Under the terms of the Atomic Energy Act, Congress must approve the agreement on U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation. If the Bush administration chooses to exempt the agreement from statutory nonproliferation criteria, both houses of Congress must pass a joint resolution of approval.
The administration might alternatively seek to amend certain portions of the Atomic Energy Act; in particular, it could seek to amend Sections 128 and 129, both of which include nonproliferation criteria.
“The administration has identified a number of options for modifying or waiving provisions of existing law to allow for full civil nuclear cooperation with India, and we look forward to working with the Congress as we review these options and consider the best way forward,” Mr. Burns told lawmakers.
If Congress is unwilling to amend these laws, the president could use the National Security Waiver to authorize nuclear exports to India. But “circumventing the will of the Congress would hardly be a promising foundation for building a new relationship with India,” Mr. Einhorn said.
While Ms. Rajkumar contended that the Bush administration would not find the deal an “easy sell,” Mr. Cohen disagreed. “It will be hard for many in Congress to vote against India, the flavor of the month,” he said.