Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

Reading the atomic tea leaves

Reading the atomic tea leaves

It was grand summitry at its best. Around 47 nations gathered in Washington earlier this week to discuss the threat of nuclear terrorism as the Barack Obama administration tried to generate consensus on securing vulnerable fissile materials worldwide and strengthening the resolve of the international community to keep it away from terrorist groups.

This agenda fits right in; after all, nuclear weapons seem to be the flavour of the season. Obama has declared that Al Qaeda and other terrorist outfits acquiring nuclear material is the single biggest threat to international security. His administration has just signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia and has announced its new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The world is viewing both these attempts with great anticipation to see if they will lead to a world without nuclear weapons—something Obama had pledged in Prague last year. But India should view all this with some trepidation.

Though there is scepticism in some quarters about the seriousness of the nuclear threat—many view it as a post-9/11 US preoccupation—for India the threat of nuclear terrorism has always been very real. It had long been trying to draw world’s attention to the potent mix of terrorism and nuclear proliferation. The activities of Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan network have proven particularly deleterious for India.

Photo: AFP

But that’s not the whole story. Pakistan is expanding its production of weapon-grade fuel, while Obama is avoiding directly addressing the issue of N-weapons security in Pakistan, confident that “Pakistan has secured its nuclear weapons". Yet the same army that is being feted in Washington for its so-called resolve in taking on extremists is responsible for nurturing not only the radical jihadis, but also the biggest illegal network involved in the trafficking of nuclear material. And it’s India that will bear the brunt of a potential fallout: As Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institution in Washington notes, “If there is a nightmare nuclear security scenario in Pakistan today it is probably an inside the family job that ends up in a nuclear Armageddon in India."

That concern remains at the heart of our security posture with Pakistan, but New Delhi should also be preoccupied with another concern at the heart of our diplomatic posture with the US. We know that the summit was an exercise aimed at providing momentum for the eventual strengthening of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) when it’s up for review at a conference in May. Fortifying the NPT remains at the heart of Obama’s N-agenda; Washington now also plans to work towards getting countries to agree to a fissile material cut-off treaty that would end the production of new bomb fuel. Given that the Obama administration has made no secret of these desires, India should be cautious as it might end up becoming the “bad guy" by default. Pakistan’s case appears reasonable to the world: It claims that if India signs the NPT, it will go ahead with its own signature on the treaty. India, of course, has to worry about China and the larger global dimension of the proliferation problem.

In this context, there are influential voices in the US that are questioning the basis of the US-India nuclear pact, which allows India access to fuel and technology for its nuclear power plants. The critics argue that, in doing so, it frees up older facilities that India can devote to making its own new generation of weapons. India is once again emerging as a proliferation problem for the US—especially so for this administration that views strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime at its strategic priority.

With this background, consider this summit itself. If the attempt at the summit was to obtain commitments from each of the 47 states attending to lock up or eliminate nuclear material, then there were only some partial steps achieved. At the end, there was a non-binding communiqué that was short on specifics. The problem of Iran and North Korea remains unresolved, while China continues to make the most dramatic improvements in its nuclear force among the five N-powers. Another goal of Obama’s during this week’s gathering—to persuade the countries present of the need for stronger sanctions against Iran— also fell flat. China still argues that Iran’s case should be resolved through dialogue and negotiations; Iran, meanwhile, has decided to hold its own summit on 17-18 April, in clear defiance of the US one.

If Obama failed on all these counts, that makes it likelier that India is going to be the fall “bad" guy Washington uses to advance its N-agenda over the next few months.

Hence, the fundamental imperative of Indian nuclear policy should remain a single-minded focus on strengthening the nation’s deterrent posture vis-à-vis the Sino-Pak nuclear duopoly in the subcontinent. India’s status of a nuclear weapon state has been accepted by the world under the rubric of the US-India nuclear pact, but now there is pressure building on Washington to revisit some elements—there is really little likelihood that the NPT will be revised in consonance with Indian desires next month.

As pressure builds on India to sign these treaties, it should underline its nuclear pledges and commitments. It still maintains its “no first use" policy. At the summit, it even proposed to set up a global centre for nuclear energy partnership—offering formal training and education—to reinforce its credentials as a responsible power. Most of all, it should re-emphasize that nuclear terrorism emanating from Pakistan remains the biggest challenge facing the world.

Harsh Pant teaches at King’s College, London. Comments are welcome at