Wednesday, March 08, 2006

On the India-U.S. Nuclear Agreement

President George W. Bush has just returned from a trip to the Indian Subcontinent. This trip has managed to generate quite a lot of passion – both positive and negative – in the U.S., as well as in the Subcontinent. The centerpiece of this trip was a path breaking nuclear agreement between the U.S. and India. I have been following President Bush’s trip quite closely, especially the nuclear agreement. In this regard, the Bharat-Rakshak discussion forum has been invaluable.

What Is It

The nuclear deal is a breathtakingly positive development. The basic theme of this agreement is that it recognizes India’s legitimate right to nuclear technology on an equal standing with the rest of the world. On the whole the agreement looks to be really good for India. It should provide a huge boost to the nuclear power industry in India, without compromising on national security in any way. In fact this agreement should enhance India’s energy security in the long run, thereby indirectly enhancing national security.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was first opened for signature in 1968, designated five states, viz., the U.S., the U.S.S.R. (succeeded by Russia), China, the U.K. and France as official nuclear weapons states. The treaty allowed these five states to deploy as many nuclear weapons as they thought fit, and required other signatory countries to completely forsake nuclear weapons. For India signing this highly discriminatory treaty has always been out of question as it gives certain states – including China with whom India has fought a war in recent years – complete and permanent military superiority over others. Though not a signatory to the NPT, India has voluntarily maintained strict export controls on nuclear technology and has an impeccable record in this regard. For not signing the NPT, India has been denied nuclear technology and nuclear fuel supplies by the rest of the world. This denial of technology and material – especially uranium of which India has a very limited supply – has made it difficult for India to use nuclear power as much as it would like to satisfy its energy needs.

The main points of the new U.S. – India nuclear agreement are as follows.
(1) India will divide its nuclear facilities into a “civilian” part and a “military” part. About two-third of India’s current and under-construction nuclear facilities (14 out of 22) will be designated civilian and the remaining will be designated military. There will be strictly enforced separation between the two.
(2) The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will monitor and safeguard India’s civilian nuclear facilities.
(3) India’s civilian facilities will be eligible to import nuclear fuel and obtain technical assistance, funding, etc. from foreign countries and companies. New nuclear facilities can also be set up with foreign help.
(4) The IAEA safeguards will be in “perpetuity”, but will be tied to the supply of nuclear fuel to the safeguarded reactors.
(5) India’s small Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) and the larger under-construction Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) will be among the designated military reactors.
(6) Future reactors can be designated by India as either civilian or military. Any reactor designated as civilian will fall under IAEA safeguards. Any reactor designated military will not be eligible for foreign fuel or technical expertise.

Drama In India

The days leading up to the signing of the agreement were full of drama, and witnessed long and tense negotiations, sometimes lasting through the night. It appears that the deal was eventually finalized barely an hour or two before the documents were signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. There were two main sticking points in the negotiations: the status of India’s Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs); and the perpetuity clause with regard to India’s civilian reactors. The Americans were eventually persuaded to accept India’s demand to designate the FBRs as military. On the perpetuity clause, India initially rejected this American demand, pointing out that the official five nuclear weapons states do not accept perpetuity with regard to IAEA safeguards for their civilian reactors. Later, India grudgingly accepted the perpetuity clause but insisted that it must be accompanied by guarantees of nuclear fuel supply to the safeguarded reactors. Eventually a compromise was reached, whereby India accepted perpetuity of safeguards but was able to tie it to nuclear fuel supply in some way, though India did not actually get iron-clad guarantees of perpetual fuel supply from the U.S.

The weeks preceding the signing of the nuclear agreement witnessed extraordinary events in India, with India’s nuclear establishment, led by the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Dr. Anil Kakodkar, taking recourse to newspaper headlines, and expressing deep concern that the fast breeder reactors would be placed under safeguards. This, they argued, would seriously compromise India’s strategic nuclear weapons program. See, for example, here, here and here. This virtual revolt by nuclear scientists and engineers was so unusual and so surprising that it deserves some scrutiny and analysis (the Bharat-Rakshak forum is invaluable in this regard). While it is almost impossible to find out exactly what led to this unusual turn of events, a couple of possibilities come to mind.
(1) Indian miscommunication. The fact that the nuclear scientists took such extreme and desperate steps indicate that they had some reason (maybe they saw some kind of draft agreement) to seriously believe that the FBRs might be placed under safeguards. If that is so then the question arises: did the Indian negotiators not make it clear to the Americans early in the negotiation process that the FBRs were sacrosanct, beyond the lakshman rekha – the inviolate red line. After all they had ample time to convey the message to the Americans since negotiations must have started soon after the in-principle agreement was reached in July 2005. This indicates that a serious communication gap may have existed between the Indian nuclear establishment and the Indian negotiating team. Perhaps, like much of the Indian public, the negotiating team did not comprehend the critical role of the FBRs in generating weapons-grade plutonium until Dr. Kakodkar’s public outburst. If this is true, then the nuclear establishment should surely hold itself partially responsible. After all, they have always given the impression that as part of India’s three-stage nuclear power program, the role of the FBRs is solely to generate fuel (the second stage) to run thorium burning power reactors (the highly desirable third and final stage). The FBRs were cast as important for India's civilian nuclear power plans, but their importance in the weapons program was never explained until now. Perhaps excessive secrecy led to misunderstandings and lack of communication.
(2) Last minute American pressure. This article by Siddharth Varadarajan puts forth this scenario. According this line of thought, Indian negotiators had always assumed that they would have complete freedom to decide which facilities to designate as military and which ones as civilian. They assumed all along that there would be no problems in designating the FBRs as military reactors. When at a very late stage in the negotiations, the Americans asked that the FBRs be placed under the civilian list, the Indians were surprised and shocked. Everybody, including the nuclear establishment had to scramble and do whatever they could to prevent the Indian negotiators from succumbing to last minute American pressure. Hence the dramatic steps taken by Dr. Kakodkar and his colleagues. However, this scenario still does not explain why, if Indian negotiators knew all along how important FBRs were to the weapons program, did they not spell out, right at the very outset of negotiations, that the two FBRs, along with the reactor Dhruva, were sacrosant and must be designated as military, along with perhaps two-three power generating Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs).
Conspiracy theory. Perhaps the whole thing was simply stage-managed drama in order to wring the best possible deal from the Americans. For obvious reasons, this is highly unlikely.

There has been repeated clarifications by Indian as well as American officials that future Indian reactors can be classified as either civilian or military at India’s discretion. However, it looks to me that it is unlikely that India will build any more military reactors, except small research ones, or replacements for the existing ones. Dhruva, along with the two FBRs should suffice for India’s weapons program. The power generating PHWRs that are designated as military will supply reactor-grade plutonium to feed the FBRs. If the need arises, it will probably be possible to convert the existing military PHWRs to research reactors generating weapons-grade plutonium.

There have also been many questions asked about the classification of future Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs). However, it looks like India may not actually need to build many more FBRs in the future. After all the FBRs are meant to be the intermediate second stage in India’s three-stage nuclear power program – providing fuel for the third stage reactors. However one of the most promising aspects of the new India – U.S. nuclear agreement is that it may enable India to more-or-less leapfrog over the second stage – and with the help of imported plutonium – to move directly to the highly desirable third stage, where India’s abundant thorium can be used as fuel to generate power. So the Indian nuclear establishment can now divert its energy and resources from building second stage FBRs to building the highly productive third stage thorium burning power reactors.

Criticism In America

American non-proliferation ayatollahs (NPAs) – a very apt term that I picked up from the Bharat-Rakshak forum – like George Perkovich, Michael Krepon, Joseph Cirincione, Rep. Ed Markey, etc. have been savagely critical of President Bush for agreeing to this deal. The reasoning that the NPAs provide for opposing this agreement goes something like this: the NPT with more than 170 signatories has been extremely successful; it has succeeded in keeping technologically advanced countries like Germany, Japan and South Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons; and most importantly, special treatment for India is bad because it will simply encourage unstable and unreliable regimes like Iran and North Korea to seek the same recognition that India has got. I see this line of thinking as deeply flawed. Here are some reasons why.
(1) The supposed success of the NPT is purely illusory. The NPT is built on three pillars: (i) non-proliferation, (ii) disarmament, and (iii) peaceful use of nuclear technology. Even if one were to assume, for the sake of argument, that objectives (i) and (iii) have been partially met, the five nuclear weapon states (NWSs) have not even pretended to pursue a policy of disarmament based on the NPT. Article VI of the NPT, as well its preamble, call for reduction and liquidation of nuclear weapons stockpiles of the NWSs. This has been completely disregarded by the NWSs. Any reduction in nuclear weapons that has happened has been caused, not by the NPT, but by geopolitical events such as fall of communism. Thus the NPT has utterly failed in at least one of three of its own stated objectives. And this is without even going into the larger question of whether or not it seeks to create and sustain a hierarchical and rigid “caste-system” of nations. The NPT can hardly be touted as an outstanding success.
(2) The total number of countries that have signed the NPT is irrelevant. Maldives, Costa Rica, etc. would never have developed nuclear weapons anyway – with or without the NPT. The real question is: how many countries with valid military threat perceptions and with reasonable economic/technological capabilities have been prevented from developing nuclear weapons solely, or even primarily, because the NPT ? I doubt if there are any.
(3) Germany, Japan and South Korea are countries with valid military threat perceptions and possess reasonable economic/technological capabilities. But is it really the NPT that has induced them not to develop nuclear weapons ? I don’t think so. The main reason they have not developed nuclear weapons is because they are protected by a U.S. nuclear umbrella. If, tomorrow, the U.S. were to withdraw its nuclear umbrella from say South Korea, would South Korea not develop nuclear weapons to protect itself from North Korea ?
(4) When the NPAs rail against special treatment for India, insisting that it weakens the case against Iran and North Korea, they forget that countries are very different from each other. Countries have always been, and will always continue to be treated differently from each other, whether or not a nuclear agreement exists between India and the U.S. For example, Iran and Israel are not treated equally. Nor are Iran and Pakistan. Nor should they be. Each is a special case. It is absurd for the NPAs to say that since India has been treated in a particular way, Iran will expect the same treatment and/or that the U.S. has a moral obligation to treat Iran the same way as India. Even from a narrow legalistic point of view India and Iran are very different. Iran is an NPT signatory; India is not. The Iranians themselves have never compared their nuclear program to India’s. Their own preferred point of comparison has been Israel: “if Israel can have the bomb, why can’t we”, etc. Rather than comparing India with Iran as the NPAs do, a closer comparison would be South Korea. South Korea, like Iran, is an NPT signatory. Also South Korea, like Iran, has carried out activities to enrich uranium to weapons grade, in violation of its NPT obligations, and, like Iran, has been caught doing so. However the U.S. and other countries have treated South Korea very differently from Iran. In my view, rightly so. India, Iran, South Korea, Pakistan, Israel are all different countries with different circumstances. They should be – and they expect to be – treated differently by the world community.

There is another aspect of the nuclear deal that has come in for much criticism in the U.S., not only from the NPAs but from reasonable commentators such as Tom Friedman as well: that the deal does not impose any cap on India’s nuclear weapons program. Some go so far as to say that since India wants to be recognized as a nuclear weapons state (NWS), India should follow some of the other NWSs in declaring an end to further production of nuclear weapons materials (all the other NWSs except China have declared an informal moratorium on production of such material). However the situations are not even remotely comparable. The U.S. has more than 5000 active nuclear warheads and even the U.K. has around 200 active warheads. Most estimates say that India has less than 100 warheads. NWSs like the U.S., Russia, etc. have agreed to stop production of nuclear weapons material only after they have already deployed as many warheads they believe they need for effective deterrence. So, logically India should be asked to agree to a fissile material cap only after producing as many weapons as are deemed necessary for India’s minimum credible deterrent. Of course India should not be directly compared to the U.S., Russia, China, etc., and the number of weapons India eventually deploys is likely to be much less. There is another important factor that makes it very difficult for India to agree to a cap on nuclear weapons production. India’s nuclear weapons have been developed in the face of extreme adverse pressure from the outside world. Actual weapons testing has been severely limited. And what testing has been done has been under a cloak of secrecy – not ideal conditions for designing and perfecting complex engineering systems. Thus, given the fact that the number of deployed Indian nuclear weapons is likely to be small compared to other NWSs, and the fact that in the absence of further testing there are likely to be some doubts regarding the performance of Indian nuclear weapons and delivery systems in actual war conditions, it is important for India to maintain a degree of ambiguity about its capability. Ironical as it may sound, it is important for India to preserve some ambiguity in order to ensure the credibility of its nuclear deterrence. Thus, based the logic of minimum credible deterrence, it is untenable for India to agree to a cap on weapons production at this point of time.

Bush The Statesman

As a result of this trip to the Indian Subcontinent, my views of President Bush have changed considerably. I still think the Bush Administration has made a mess of the Iraq war and in its management of the deficit. However President Bush has displayed courage and far-sightedness in signing the India-U.S. nuclear agreement. He has also shown an impressive conviction regarding free trade, as exemplified by his speech on outsourcing in India. As pointed out by many economists (for example Jagdish Bhagwati), the benefits of free trade are much greater and more enduring than its ills. On this Subcontinental trip, President Bush also demonstrated a remarkable and refreshing quality of calling a spade a spade. He did this in India when he said of the nuclear agreement “what this agreement says is things change, times change, that leadership can make a difference”. He did this again in Islamabad when standing next to Pakistani dictator Gen. Parvez Musharraf, he flatly turned down Pakistan’s request for nuclear assistance with the words “Pakistan and India are different countries with different needs and different histories”.