TOPICS: Indo-US nuke deal ignores escalation fears

Jim Lobe

While the US Senate’s approval of a controversial nuclear deal with India was hailed by the White House Thursday as a major advance in Washington’s “strategic relationship” with the South Asian giant, weapons experts warned that it dealt a serious blow to more than 30 years of US and international non-proliferation efforts.

“This is a non-proliferation disaster,” said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association (ACA), who noted that it effectively exempts India from the global non-proliferation regime and will likely “promote further nuclear competition with Pakistan”. “(W)e are taking apart the basic architecture of nuclear non-proliferation that has served us for many decades,” warned Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan before the measure passed by a 86-13 margin Wednesday. “We are saying to India it is okay if you produce additional nuclear weapons if we cannot see them.”

The deal, a top priority of the George W. Bush administration since it was concluded after nearly two years of negotiations in July 2007, was rushed through the House of Representatives on a 298-117 vote Saturday, so it will become law when Bush signs the legislation.

Bush had hoped to have signed it by last week, when he hosted Indian PM Manmohan Singh at the White House, but the turmoil created by the three-week-old financial crisis — and frantic lobbying to push the administration’s 700-billion-dollar bailout package through Congress — put that goal out of reach. The Senate voted on the nuclear deal minutes before it approved the latest version of the bailout.

The deal approved by Congress will specifically permit the US to sell nuclear fuel and technology to India for its civilian energy needs in exchange for Delhi’s agreement to open 14 of its civilian nuclear facilities to international inspectors for the first time. That provision has been cited by the administration and its supporters as a major breakthrough that would contribute to India’s joining what they called the “non-proliferation mainstream”. But the deal also provides that India’s eight military reactors — that is, those which provide weapons-grade nuclear material — would remain off-limits to inspectors.

That failure constitutes a huge loophole, according to the non-proliferation experts, who noted that, under the deal as approved by both the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and Congress, India could also buy nuclear fuel from foreign suppliers for its civilian nuclear plants and divert the fuel that it produces domestically to its military plants.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told lawmakers last week that Washington will make its “highest priority” at the next NSG meeting a ban on the export of enrichment and reprocessing technology to states that do not sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Ironically, the chief commercial beneficiaries of both the NSG’s decision and Congressional approval of the deal, according to some experts, will be French, Japanese, and Russian nuclear suppliers.