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Home > News > Columnists > George Bunn

Why the N-deal is no walkover

June 14, 2006

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George Bush agreed to an Indian-US 'partnership' in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy in July last year.

In addition to acceptance by the Indian Parliament, their agreement must be approved by the US Congress and by the international Nuclear Suppliers Group. Doubts about the agreement have been expressed in both the US Congress and the NSG.

'Endorse, reinforce N-deal with India'

US-India cooperation on nuclear matters began in the 1950s when the United States was one of two or three countries that provided India with nuclear technology, supplies and training for its scientists -- all for non-weapons purposes as part of US President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace programme. During the 1960s, India and the United States also cooperated in the negotiation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT, at the Geneva Disarmament Conference.

60 years after the bomb

There were three country groups represented at that Conference: the non-aligned led usually by India, the Western powers led usually by the United States and the Eastern Bloc led by the Soviet Union.

I was a member of the US delegation and participated in these negotiations.

When the treaty drafting was concluded in 1968, I thought India had been satisfied by the changes we made in the treaty text to meet India's suggestions. But India did not join the treaty. Under the NPT's terms, India could only join as a nation not having nuclear weapons. India did not then have nuclear weapons and could not join the NPT on the same terms as Britain, China, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States, the only nations that then had nuclear weapons.

We did not violate NPT: PM

India chose not to join. In some ways, the Bush-Singh agreement would have the effect of admitting India to NPT membership as a Nuclear Weapon State even though that is not permitted by the terms of the treaty.

In 1974, India conducted a nuclear test explosion which it said was for 'peaceful purposes.' Many in the US government were furious because they thought that past American assistance provided to India for 'peaceful purposes' had been used by India to gain the ability to make nuclear weapons.

As a result, the US Congress adopted legislation prohibiting US economic and military assistance to any country that had not joined the NPT. Congress enacted other legislation prohibiting any future US nuclear assistance intended for peaceful purposes from being used to make nuclear weapons. As a result, the United States ended important nuclear cooperation with India. Relations between India and the United States became somewhat strained.

The Bush-Singh agreement calls for a major departure from this US nuclear policy -- which is still codified in US statutes. The US Congress must approve the change in policy before the Bush-Singh agreement can be put into effect.

El Baradei backs India-US N-deal

But Congressional approval will probably not come quickly, especially in a year when elections are scheduled in November for all the members of the US House of Representatives and one-third of the members of the US Senate.

The reactions of US legislators to the Bush-Singh agreement have been mixed. Moreover, strong opposition to the agreement has been expressed by some non-governmental groups opposed to the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries. They see the Bush-Singh agreement as a reward to India for acquiring nuclear weapons and a possible encouragement to some other nations to do the same. Congressional approval of such a major departure from US statutory policy is not likely to come easily.

A major departure from the nonproliferation policy of the Nuclear Suppliers Group will also be required.

The NSG is composed of most of the countries that have advanced nuclear programmes and are members of the NPT, including both the non-nuclear weapon members and the five nuclear weapon members. The policy and decisions of the Group prohibit exports of specified nuclear equipment and technology to countries like India that have not joined the NPT.

'India has what US lacks'

At an informal meeting of the NSG in March 2006, the United States asked for support for the Bush-Singh agreement. A few governments said they would support the agreement but the great majority questioned it or remained silent.

Two important non-aligned countries, Sweden and Switzerland, raised major questions. In the 1960s when the NPT was negotiated, both countries had research programmes to learn how nuclear weapons are made. Both then took the opposite path from that of India in 1968 when the NPT was agreed: They joined the NPT and gave up their exploratory nuclear weapons programmes.

Having chosen the opposite policy from that of India, are they likely to look favourably on India's decision today?

The American proposal to the NSG requires a major departure from NSG policy.

The NSG acts by consensus and no consensus has yet been reported. If the United States is unable to achieve a consensus and ignores NSG policy by going ahead with the Bush-Singh agreement, what effect will that have on the decisions of other suppliers who wish to make a profit by selling nuclear equipment and technology in violation of NSG rules? Will the NSG lose its influence over the nuclear export policies of its members?

Under present US law and policy, the US Congress and the NSG must both give their consent to the Bush-Singh agreement. The required approval process will probably slow implementation of the agreement if it does not prevent it from going into effect. But, as President Bush's representatives see it, there are major advantages to the agreement:

  • Improving US relations with India by dealing with nuclear-weapon policy differences that have long been a source of disagreement.
  • Gaining India's support for decisions that are needed to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime such as decisions with respect to Iran.
  • Supporting India's economic growth in order, among other reasons, to balance China.
  • Supporting continued expansion around the world of the use of nuclear power for generating electricity.

For the Bush administration, these are powerful arguments that make the deal worthwhile.

George Bunn was the first general counsel for the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA: 1961-1969), and helped negotiate the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty before being named the first US ambassador to the Geneva Disarmament Conference.

Complete coverage: The nuclear deal | The nuclear chats


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