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Pokhran marked the end of the nonproliferation regime

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC | June 03, 2008

Robert Einhorn, the best-known nuclear nonproliferation activist in the United States, has said that India's May 1998 nuclear tests were the death knell of the nonproliferation regime.

Speaking at a major conference on the 10th anniversary of those tests, Einhorn, who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, "While the May 1998 tests didn't mark the beginning of India's and Pakistan's nuclear weapons programmes, they did mark a watershed in the nuclear history of the subcontinent. Pakistan had conducted tit-for-tat nuclear tests soon after India did."

Einhorn was the assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation affairs in the Clinton administration and part of the first George W Bush [Images] administration, before he was pushed out for impeding a strategic partnership Washington wanted with New Delhi, which included the transfer of high technology to India.

Einhorn was speaking at a conference organised by the Asia Programme and the International Security Studies Programme of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars titled, 'South Asia's Nuclear Tests, 10 Years Later: So What?'

Einhorn, who served in the administration for 29 years, is now a senior adviser at the CSIS International Security Programme, where he focuses on nonproliferation and arms control issues.

"The tests and the accompanying declarations of nuclear status and acceleration of the nuclear and missile programmes had a very negative impact on a global nuclear nonproliferation regime,' Einhorn said, adding, "One such negative impact was a shift in expectations from proliferation optimism to proliferation pessimism."

Einhorn said, "The decade leading up to the 1998 tests was a period of major achievements in the area of nuclear nonproliferation," pointing out that Argentina and Brazil [Images] gave up their nuclear ambitions while moving from military to civilian rule, and South Africa on the eve of majority rule.

He noted that South Africa "actually built six nuclear weapons and agreed to dismantle them to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine had a nuclear weapons inheritance from the Soviet Union, but decided to give them up and send the nuclear weapons to Russia [Images] and join the NPT."

Einhorn went on to list other achievements before May 1998, saying that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty negotiations concluded in 1996, and the Conference on Disarmament a year earlier had achieved a consensus on the negotiated mandate for a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. Also, in 1995, the Review Conference had met and decided to make the NPT permanent.

"This 10-year period or so before the tests was really the high watermark in international multilateral nonproliferation efforts and it began to look as if the battle against nuclear proliferation could and would be won," he said.

But, he said, the 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan "ushered in a lengthy period � still continuing today � of proliferation pessimism."

To the effects of the 1998 nuclear tests, Einhorn attributed everything he could: The revelations about the A Q Khan's nuclear blackmarket network, the inability to get the FMCT negotiations underway, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the evidence that terrorist groups were seeking nuclear weapons, and the medium and intermediate range ballistic missile tests by a number of countries, including North Korea, India, Pakistan and Iran.

Einhorn said that the 'universality of the NPT was dead,' thanks to the May 1998 tests and argued that 'the tests reshaped expectations about further proliferation.

"Further proliferation was now seen as more likely, perhaps even inevitable," he said, and warned that this could cause states, fearing that their neighbours would proliferate nuclear weapon, to hedge their bets and keep their options open to acquire nuclear weapons. Some of that had occurred since the May 1998 nuclear tests, he said.

Einhorn said the tests also lowered the perceived costs of going nuclear because of the international community's short-lived and mild reaction to them. He recalled how the automatic sanctions that were triggered and imposed on New Delhi and Islamabad were removed just three years after the tests 'despite India and Pakistan refusing to acquiesce to the restraints and benchmarks proposed by the US.'

He said the early repeal of the sanctions conveyed the message to the world that commercial and other bilateral interests would be given higher priority than nonproliferation, and that it was possible for a country to ignore or defy nonproliferation norms without the risk of penalties.

The bottom line, according to Einhorn, was that 'India and Pakistan had blasted their way into the nuclear club with impunity,' and that this message 'would not be lost on future nuclear aspirants.'

Einhorn said, "China's strategic calculations were also affected by the nuclearisation of the subcontinent. Now it could not ignore the prospect of India threatening them with an Agni-III intermediate range ballistic missile, which, Indian government officials have pointed out, can reach all major Chinese cities."

Einhorn said that since the tests had effectively killed the chances of multilateral arms control and disarmament agreements such as the CTBT and FMCT, it was only a matter of time before India and Pakistan tested again.

He felt "the May 1998 test series fell short of achieving India's weapons development goals and so India's nuclear establishment strongly wishes to conduct more nuclear tests."

Pakistan's May 1998 tests, Einhorn noted, were so hastily prepared in response to the Indian tests that they probably didn't achieve the goals they could have with more preparation. "I would assume that Pakistani nuclear scientists would also like to carry out more nuclear tests," he said.

While both countries claimed that they only sought credible minimum deterrent capabilities, since May 1998 "both have continued to ramp up fissile material production and their strategic goals appear to be open-ended," he said.

Einhorn also alleged that since the tests, India and Pakistan had also sent "misleading signals to possible future nuclear aspirants about the implications for stability of introducing nuclear weapons into unstable regimes in the world."

He felt that though Indian and Pakistani strategists argued that nuclear deterrence would stabilise relations, "less than two years after the May 1998 nuclear tests, India and Pakistan found themselves in two crises that could have led to the use of nuclear weapons."

Einhorn said that many observers, including many American experts who have followed those crises closely, agreed, "The risks of escalation to the nuclear level were very serious in both cases."

The only silver lining, he said, was that the tests and the declarations of nuclear status had not occurred in 1974, when India carried out its first test.

Then 76 countries signed the NPT, while many countries, including Japan [Images], France [Images], China, Argentina, South Africa, Egypt, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, were not part of it. If India had declared itself a Nuclear Weapons State in 1974, "I think a substantial number of these countries would not have joined the NPT, and a number of them would be Nuclear Weapons States today," Einhorn said.

'The long hiatus between 1974 and 1998 was hugely important for consolidating and expanding the nonproliferation regime.' But even though the effects were attenuated by time, the 1998 tests were a serious blow to the nonproliferation regime.

Image: A file photograph of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Defence Minister George Fernandes [Images] at the site of the nuclear test in Pokhran on May 20, 1998.

Also Read: Politics has defeated the purpose of Pokhran

                    Pokhran tests strengthened India: Kalam

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