American and Indian diplomats have now completed negotiations for the US-India Civil Nuclear Accord. The agreement, which bridges the gap between what Congress approved late last year and the conditions demanded by India’s government, will allow India to purchase US nuclear technology and fuel, ostensibly for civilian purposes only. Whether New Delhi abides by that commitment is another matter: India first tested a nuclear device in 1974 using plutonium illicitly diverted from a Canadian-built reactor—a point apparently forgotten by undersecretary of state Nick Burns, who noted in a press conference that “unlike Iran... India has not violated its nuclear obligations”.
But never mind. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is not the noxious Indira Gandhi, 2007 is not 1974, and there are defensible reasons to support a deal—cementing a strategic relationship between two great democracies foremost among them. But that doesn’t mean any deal, under any circumstances. Nor does it mean Burns can shade what some of those circumstances entail, especially as they relate to India’s curiously solid ties to Iran. Take his comment: “I would disagree... that... there’s a burgeoning military relationship.” Now take an item from DefenseNews, 19 March: “India, Iran form joint group to deepen defence ties.” According to it, the agreement, “which follows the strategic partnership accord signed in 2003, emerged from high-level talks held during the March visit of Rear Adm. Sajjad Kouchaki Badlani, commander of Iran’s Navy”.
Or consider this Burnsian nugget: “We’ve made the argument that India has not proliferated its nuclear technology, that India, in effect, outside the (Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, NPT) system, has played by the rules...” Yet, in September 2004, the US sanctioned Chaudhary Surendar and Y.S.R. Prasad, both former chairmen of India’s state-run Nuclear Power Corporation, “for allegedly passing nuclear secrets to Tehran”, according to a March 2005 report in this newspaper. The sanctions on Surendar were dropped later, but not those against Prasad, who is believed to have passed on “the technology to extract tritium from heavy-water reactors”. Iran is now building such a reactor in Arak; tritium can boost the yields of atomic bombs. Prasad denies thecharges.
Last year, the US slapped sanctions on two Indian companies for selling Iran precursor chemicals for rocket fuel and chemical weapons. In April, the department of justice released a 15-count indictment against two Indians “on charges of supplying the Indian government with controlled technology”, including “electrical components that could have applications in missile guidance and firing systems”.
In an eye-opening article in the current issue of the Washington Quarterly, Christine Fair notes, “India has... intelligence outposts in Iran, including (a) consulate in Zahedan and a... new consulate in Bandar Abbas, which... provides significant power-projection advantages in any future conflict with Pakistan.” Fair, research associate at the US Institute of Peace, adds, “India helped Iran develop submarine batteries... and is planning to sell Iran the Konkurs antitank missile.”
Advocates of the nuclear deal recognize these facts. They argue they are largely driven by India’s need for energy, which explains the gas pipeline being built between India and Iran. Says Burns, “The (deal) also gives India greater control... over its energy supplies, making it less reliant on imports from countries... like Iran.”
Would that this were even half-true. India’s relationship with Iran is driven as much by the desire to encircle Pakistan and gain access to Afghanistan as it is by energy concerns. Then, too, nuclear power, which can only provide base load electrical demand, can’t by itself supplant the need for hydrocarbons. “Any time you increase the base load generating capacity of a country, you generally must increase the... peak load capacity to match,” says non-proliferation expert Henry Sokolski. “And the most efficient peak load generators are natural-gas fired.” It’s hard to see how nuclear power will reduce India’s interest in Iranian gas. None of this has gone unnoticed in Congress. In May, seven members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs sent a letter to Prime Minister Singh raising concerns about the Indo-Iranian relationship. Singh received a similar letter from eight US senators. The letters were never answered. “You can take a sledgehammer to the heads of the Indians about this... and they still won’t get it,” complains a Congressional staffer.
Actually, the Indians are starting to get it. “We know the danger of an Iran with nuclear weapons,” says Raminder Singh Jassal, India’s deputy chief of mission in Washington. He dismisses the naval visits as “ceremonial” and insists “we know how to calibrate our relationship with Iran without compromising on essentials”. Maybe it’s true. Or maybe the US and India have different notions of “calibrated” relationships. But if Congress is going to punch a hole in the NPT to accommodate India, with all the moral hazard that entails for the non-proliferation regime, it should get something in return. Getting India to drop completely its presumptively ceremonial military ties with Iran isn’t asking a lot.
Edited excerpts from The Wall Street Journal. Comments are welcome at email@example.com