TOPICS > Politics

Landmark Nuclear Agreement Between India, U.S. in Danger of Collapse

October 16, 2007 at 6:25 PM EST
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: It was billed as one of President Bush’s biggest foreign policy achievements, opening a new strategic relationship between the U.S. and India. Announced during President Bush’s visit to India in March 2006, the agreement established a program of cooperation on civilian nuclear programs, even though India has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has tested nuclear weapons.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: We concluded an historic agreement today on nuclear power. It’s not an easy job for the prime minister to achieve this agreement. I understand. It’s not easy for the American president to achieve this agreement, but it’s a necessary agreement. It’s one that will help both our peoples.

What this agreement says is things change, times change, that leadership can make a difference.

JEFFREY BROWN: Under the deal, the U.S. agreed to trade nuclear reactors, technology and fuel to help meet India’s growing energy needs. In Washington, the nuclear pact ran into bipartisan opposition. Democratic Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts said it set a dangerous precedent.

REP. ED MARKEY (D), Massachusetts: This deal is a disaster for the nuclear non-proliferation regime on the planet. It blows a hole through any attempts in the future that we could make to convince the Pakistanis, or the Iranians, or the North Koreans, or for that matter any other country in the world that might be interested in obtaining nuclear weapons that there is a level playing field, that there is a real set of safeguards.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the agreement was narrowly approved by Congress and signed into law by President Bush last December.

GEORGE W. BUSH: By helping India expand its use of safe nuclear energy, this bill lays the foundation for a new strategic partnership between our two nations that will help ease India’s demands for fossil fuels and ease pressure on global markets.

JEFFREY BROWN: The deal has touched off even stronger opposition in India’s parliament among members of the Communist and Nationalist Parties. Yesterday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told President Bush, according to a news release on the Indian embassy’s Web site, that certain difficulties had stalled the pact.

Today, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the U.S. wasn’t giving up hope on the bilateral agreement.

TOM CASEY, State Department Spokesman: I think it is really something that we are going to continue to work on and going to do so regardless of the time table that gets followed for the implementation of this particular agreement.

Reasons for contention with India

Arjun Makhijani
Energy and Environmental Research
It's a great democracy. People are prickly about their independence, as they are here. And I think that is the main part of the issue. And there are many specifics to that that I could go into.

JEFFREY BROWN: The administration had hoped India would approve the deal by early next year.

And for more on all of this, we talk with Michael Green, senior director for Asian affairs. On President Bush's National Security Council staff in 2004 and 2005, he's now an associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

And Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear engineer and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, he was born and raised in India and travels there frequently.

And welcome to both of you.

Mr. Makhijani, first, what's making this so contentious in India right now?

ARJUN MAKHIJANI, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research: Well, what's making this so contentious is not the nuclear part of the deal. I think, for instance, the left supports nuclear power generally, or large parts of it. The right supports nuclear power. All governments in power have encouraged nuclear power.

What's making this fall apart in India is the perception, encouraged by statements here and a great deal of the underlying reality and expectations from the U.S. side, that this is going to make India subservient and a follower of U.S. foreign policy in the region, that India will lose its hard-fought independence.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it's a kind of sovereignty issue, you mean?

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: It's a sovereignty -- well, India, like the United States, fought the British, maybe a little more politely, but it was -- you know, the independence was hard-won. It's a great democracy. People are prickly about their independence, as they are here. And I think that is the main part of the issue. And there are many specifics to that that I could go into.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much of a political problem is it for the prime minister? Would he lose an election over something like this?

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Well, that's evidently what he's afraid of, because the left, which supports his government, is part of the coalition; the right is not part of the coalition. They're opposing it, too. He would likely lose a no-confidence vote, and then they would have to go back to the polls, and he may lose the election. So it is a very, very big issue in India, as the foreign policy implications for India have become more debated in India.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Mr. Green, I understand you were talking to some of your former colleagues today. Is it being seen here as largely a domestic issue there?

MICHAEL GREEN, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Yes, this is a problem, as Prime Minister Singh told President Bush on Monday on the telephone, it's a problem that he's facing at home, because of broad opposition to what he is trying to do with the U.S.

As you heard, it's not just about the specifics of the nuclear deal; it's about the orientation of India's foreign and economic policy.

But I think the administration and supporters of the deal, both here and in New Delhi, are looking at this not as a delete, if you will, but as a pause. The politics are hard now. And I think there's some confidence among Singh's advisers and here that, with some time, this can be, to use the computer metaphor again, rebooted and brought forward.

The difficulty is we have our own political timeline here. And too much of a delay means we'll miss a window to get this passed in the Congress next year.

The stakes of the nuclear deal

Michael Green
Center for Strategic and Inter. Studies
If it falls through, the broad strategic rationale for closer U.S.-India relations will still be there, but it will take a lot of momentum out of it. There will be a lot of disappointment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Remind us about the stakes here. What would be lost if it's scuttled? What makes this so important?

MICHAEL GREEN: Well, the U.S. and India over the past five years, under the previous Indian government, the BJP, and now under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and President Bush on our side, but with some start on the Clinton administration, has been trying to get past decades of sort of cool, distant relations, caused in large part by the U.S. isolation of India on nuclear cooperation.

So the idea was to really bring these two countries together, two great democracies. India needs to grow to bring its population out of poverty. And India is growing, but it's going to need energy. It's going to need fuel. It's going to need help from the international economy.

And this deal was the centerpiece of an overall shift, frankly, in India's foreign policy and American foreign policy, where we were going to accept India as it is, with some more obligations under the nuclear deal, but India was also expecting help from the U.S. in nuclear fuel.

If it falls through, the broad strategic rationale for closer U.S.-India relations will still be there, but it will take a lot of momentum out of it. There will be a lot of disappointment. There are a lot of related issues, U.S. arms sales to India, defense cooperation, economic reform within India. This nuclear issue is a proxy fight in India for a lot of other issues in U.S.-India relations and India's own economic policy.

JEFFREY BROWN: How would you define...

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Well, I think more is being made of this deal because so much political capital has been invested in it by both governments. I think the isolation of India because of their nuclear test fell away quite a long time back.

Trade between India and the United States is very healthy and has been growing very rapidly. Relations have been very close. I think, on the energy side, also, its implications have been sort of overblown, unfortunately, I think.

This is not a stable basis for a relationship between the United States and India. It's an unstable...

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean this deal, in particular?

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Even if it worked, it would not be a stable basis, because India would become dependent on the United States for nuclear fuel. The United States does not want India to have a gas pipeline, taking gas from Iran via Pakistan to India.

That's considered to be a peace pipeline, because Pakistan has to settle down some of its restive regions for that pipeline to be safe and secure and for it to work. The United States is very opposed that.

That's one of the things that has excited a lot of the opposition in India, is because of the nuclear deal, the pipeline deal is falling apart, in part because of the nuclear deal. And there's much more energy for India in the pipeline deal with Iran than is in the nuclear deal with the United States.

Discouraging global proliferation

Arjun Makhijani
Energy and Environmental Research
So it's created a kind of a climate in which everybody is saying, if the U.S. can give this to India and pursue nuclear power and enrichment plants on its own, the West can do it, maybe we'd better do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the larger issue or the stakes for the non-proliferation movement itself, that this all raised, in terms of the U.S. trying to push other countries to cut back or curtail or stop altogether their nuclear programs?

MICHAEL GREEN: I don't think that India and the U.S. signing this deal -- and if we were to implement it, implementing this deal -- will cause an Iran or North Korea to say that they're going to accelerate or stop their own nuclear weapons programs. They're pursuing their nuclear weapons programs for their own reasons, not because they read international treaties or pay attention to these international norms.

The logic of the deal was realizing that India is not going to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but as a major player in the international system, we need India's help in maintaining non-proliferation policies internationally. And there's a lot India could do.

Iran is a touchstone on this, because I think there was an expectation in Washington, and in London, and France, and elsewhere, where there was support for this deal, that India would be more helpful on pressuring Iran. And initially, the Singh government did put some pressure on Iran, voted in the IAEA to condemn Iran's program, for example, very controversial with the left in India. That's why I say it's something of a proxy fight for broader questions about where India's foreign policy and economic policy will head.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think it has larger implications?

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: I think so. I think this has already done a lot of damage, this deal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Damage to the non-proliferation effort?

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: To non-proliferation, yes, not by itself, but in the context. The West is saying -- a lot of people in the West, including the United States, say that we need nuclear power to deal with global warming. We can build enrichment plants, but not only Iran, but any country that doesn't have uranium enrichment, even in good standing under the NPT, should not have uranium enrichment now, because you can make bombs with the same technology.

This deal in that context has aroused much more interest in nuclear power, which is now seen as kind of a covert bomb-making capability. Countries don't say that, but the Gulf Cooperation Council wants -- they say it's for peaceful purposes, but they point to Israel and Iran and say, "We want it."

Saudi Arabia wants it. Yemen wants it. Egypt wants it. Turkey wants it. Indonesia wants it. Malaysia wants it. Brazil has already got an enrichment plant. Argentina is rethinking.

So it's created a kind of a climate in which everybody is saying, if the U.S. can give this to India and pursue nuclear power and enrichment plants on its own, the West can do it, maybe we'd better do it.

Keeping the agreement alive

Michael Green
Center for Strategic & Inter. Studies
With some time, there are elections, state elections later in the year. They have a budget they could use to politic with. With some time, they can build support again, but they need a pause.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you briefly before we have to go, you said a lot of people see this as a pause now, perhaps not an end. Is there a perception that the U.S. has some bargaining chip to come back and keep this alive?

MICHAEL GREEN: I think people in the administration, like Nick Burns and John Rood at the State Department, and Secretary Rice, have worked on this, put a lot of work in this, and they're not going to let it just die. And the action is going to be in India.

And what I hear from friends in the Indian government who support the deal is they think, with some time, they can start working on their coalition. They've hit a wall. It was too hot. There was too much opposition. But with some time, there are elections, state elections later in the year. They have a budget they could use to politic with. With some time, they can build support again, but they need a pause. They were heading towards, they thought, collapse of their coalition if they kept pushing.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Michael Green, Arjun Makhijani, thank you both very much.

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Thank you.