The U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement with India is facing deep setbacks as the Indian government battles strong opposition from the Left. The Indian Communist Party threatens to bring down Prime Minister Singh’s coalition government if Singh proceeds with the deal. Although Congress approved U.S nuclear trade with India last year, India’s internal dispute has opened the door for Congress to reexamine the deal’s dangerous consequences of exacerbating nuclear proliferation risks. Congress has another chance to require modifications mitigating the nonproliferation damages when it votes on the deal’s implementation. The accord would then have the potential to help both countries achieve their core strategic interests. It would serve as the centerpiece for strengthening U.S. relations with India while providing India with the nuclear energy supply it needs to ward off an energy crisis this decade.

By rushing the nuclear cooperation deal’s completion, the Bush administration has demonstrated its narrow priority of achieving strategic gains at the cost of undermining over 30 years of enforcing nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation policies toward India. The strategic benefits of India serving as a potential counterweight to China’s rising power in Asia, and providing support against the threat of nuclear terrorism originating from Pakistan, are purely hypothetical situations without a binding commitment from India. Yet, pursuing the deal as it currently stands would cause three real problems to strengthening nonproliferation efforts.

First, the agreement would exempt India from U.S. nonproliferation laws, which prohibit U.S. nuclear trade and cooperation with countries who have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Without having text on the criteria justifying India’s exemption, the agreement is permitting U.S. nuclear trade with only those it needs for security cooperation. Consequently, the existing agreement makes it difficult to negotiate with other nuclear ambitious countries. Those desiring nuclear programs would likely challenge the United States for not providing the basis for allowing India’s nuclear proliferation.

In testimonies to Congress last year, proponents of the deal offered some criteria supporting India’s preferential treatment. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified that India is the only country today that has a sophisticated nuclear program and recently displayed “responsible nuclear behavior” to justify nuclear cooperation. Ashley Tellis, a leading scholar of U.S.-India relations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also claimed that India is one of the only non-NPT states that has “proven mastery over various nuclear fuel cycles, has an exceptional nonproliferation record, energy needs that cannot be satisfied without nuclear fuel, and can mitigate its damages to climate change and environmental degradation with this deal.”

These arguments distinguishing India’s “good behavior,” however, are not sufficient to justify India’s exemption. They are missing the crucial element of guaranteeing that India will comply with nonproliferation standards. Without having such criteria for U.S.-India nuclear trade, the United States weakens its political leverage to deter other nuclear ambitious countries from pursuing nuclear programs. For example, Iran sees the U.S. promoting a hypocritical policy where it exclusively chooses which countries can access U.S. nuclear trade. Iran might use this argument against U.S. efforts to condemn its nuclear enrichment activities. It has not yet raised the agreement’s “double standard” as its main motivation for accelerating nuclear capabilities. However, Iran’s eagerness to advance its nuclear program might motivate it to later use the “double standard” problem as another talking point for its nuclear campaign.

India’s exemption could also create the risk that Pakistan, another non-NPT state, will demand civil nuclear trade agreements with the United States or other nuclear supplier countries, such as China and Russia. Pakistan’s concern that nuclear cooperation would strengthen the United States and India’s strategic relationship might compel it to build up its own nuclear program to enhance its strategic interests in the region. This would prompt a severe backlash to the nonproliferation regime, as other nuclear supplier states would follow the United States in bending the NPT rules for similar strategic interests.

For example, China and Russia have already started engaging in “reckless transfers of nuclear technology to their own preferred partners,” according to Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment. Last year, Russia sent a large fuel shipment to India despite the Nuclear Supplier Group’s (NSG) restrictions by claiming it under the NSG’s “safety exception.” The NSG is a 45-nation group controlling nuclear exports that may be used for nuclear weapons production. Similarly, China and Pakistan have been discussing trade of reactor sales, suggesting that China may also forgo NPT and Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) guidelines for nuclear cooperation.

China and Russia’s illegal nuclear trade activities would provide countries that have not signed the NPT with greater access to nuclear materials without International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. As a consequence of expanding unsafeguarded nuclear technology, these agreements could increase the risks of nuclear weaponry falling into the hands of terrorist organizations that have been immune to conventional deterrence strategies.

Another damaging consequence would be that U.S. nuclear exports for India’s civil energy facilities would allow India to free up its limited domestic uranium resources for its nuclear weapons program. The U.S. would be indirectly abetting India’s fissile material production for nuclear weapons and undermining decades of U.S policy efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

While the existing agreement causes serious proliferation problems, the deal can be improved to mitigate the challenges to nonproliferation standards. The deal must first establish criteria for India’s exemption from U.S. nuclear trade laws. By setting high nonproliferation standards in the U.S.-India agreement, the United States would be able to reduce the risk of other non-NPT states demanding nuclear cooperation where it is not yet merited.

Another improvement would be for the United States and India to participate in a nuclear fuel supply bank facilitated by the IAEA. India would only be able to access U.S. nuclear exports as long as it upholds international standards and nonproliferation commitments. Using the nuclear fuel bank to facilitate nuclear trade between India and the United States would provide the necessary safeguards against India misusing nuclear exports for nuclear weapons production. Other non-NPT states and NPT states would feel less threatened that the deal would alter their regional security situation because the nuclear fuel bank provides a mechanism for countries to watch over one another’s nuclear activities. Despite these solutions, the proposal still has loopholes to resolve, including setting up competitive prices, establishing who has authority over regulatory decisions, and ensuring that political disputes between participating developed and developing countries do not interfere in the distribution of nuclear supplies.

Most urgent, the deal must require India to commit to concrete nonproliferation measures, such as curbing and eventually eliminating its fissile material production. This requirement would prevent the irreversible damage of allowing India to use the unsafeguarded fissile material for nuclear weapons whenever it feels threatened by its neighbors. Insisting on the cutoff of India’s fissile material production would protect the United States from increasing the risk of nuclear material getting into the hands of terrorists and stimulating a nuclear arms race in the region.

If these steps are taken to mitigate the deal’s proliferation concerns, then the exchange for nuclear cooperation with India would no longer be an egregious tradeoff against U.S. traditional nonproliferation commitments and illusory U.S.-India strategic benefits. The United States would be able to ensure its desire for a lasting security relationship with India while also laying the ground for improving its global commitments to promoting safe civil nuclear trade and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.

Despite these changes to the agreement, the deal is still on the verge of collapsing due to strong opposition from India’s Communist Party. The Left is convinced that the deal would “make India subservient to American interests in Asia.” Being critical of the U.S.-India deal this late in the process, however, seems to suggest that the Communist Party is exaggerating the consequences to India’s sovereignty and threatening to reject the deal for political gains against Prime Minister Singh’s coalition government. It might have felt marginalized throughout the deal’s decision-making process and is calling for debate in Parliament to cement its role in the nuclear deal’s completion and in future decisions between the United States and India.

Since the U.S. nuclear cooperation deal with India was intended to launch efforts promoting stronger strategic ties with India, the United States would incur a great loss to its credibility if the deal is terminated because of India’s internal politics. Rather than aggravate the political climate and intensify the Communist Party’s fear of U.S. hegemony in South Asia, Washington should step back and encourage Prime Minister Sigh to take the time to work out the differences within his coalition government. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress should pass the agreement that includes modifications mitigating the proliferation risks. Having Congress approve the deal first might enhance Singh’s leverage and burden the Communist Party for thwarting future gains from a U.S.-India partnership. As a result of slowing down the process, the United States has a better chance of improving the deal’s prospects of passing through Indian Parliament and finally through the NSG. If it succeeds, the agreement would serve as an exemplary case of reconciling competing U.S. regional security interests and broader nonproliferation goals.

Sandya Das is a Masters candidate at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
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