Nuclear Proliferators and Double Standards

One of the more interesting foreign policy phenomena over the past year or so has been the prevalence of China hawks fawning over the US-India nuclear deal. The clear implication is that the payoff from signing the deal is that India will fall into line in a loose policy of containing China. Never mind the fact that India has made perfectly clear that it has no intention of following such a policy.

Now comes State Department spokesman-turned-South-and-Central-Asia-assistant-secretary Richard Boucher to admit that with respect to our posture on India versus our posture on Iran “Is there a double-standard? Yeah. There should be.” Reuters reports further that Boucher “added that he did not believe Iran decided its policies based on how Washington dealt with India.”

This is pretty simplistic thinking. Nobody’s arguing that Iran “decides its policies based on how Washington deals with India.” The point is that the increasingly brittle international nonproliferation regime is based on norms; to the extent that the United States undermines those norms, it hastens the irrelevance of the NPT and the related institutions. Further, it’s perfectly clear that the international community (or “international community” if one prefers) has not gone along with the new norm that countries that are friendly to America should get special treatment.

And while we’re at it, let’s look at the circular logic deployed by pro-India deal types based on proliferation concerns. On one hand, we’re told that India has a rock-solid track record on proliferation, so we should sign the deal as a reward. On the other hand, we’re told that one of the benefits of the deal is that it will get some of India’s civilian reactors (though none of its military reactors and no future reactors) into a monitoring regime.

But if India has a rock-solid track record on proliferation, why care about getting them into a semi-formal nonproliferation institution? And further, let’s take a look at India’s allegedly solid track record on proliferation, courtesy of the Weekly Standard:

Over the last 20 months, the State Department has sanctioned no fewer than seven separate Indian entities for transferring strategic weapons-related technology or goods to Iran.

One of these entities–Balaji Amines Limited–was sanctioned late in July for selling Iran chemicals critical to manufacturing rocket fuel at the very same time Iranian-supplied missiles to Hezbollah were slamming into the homes of innocents in Haifa. State also sanctioned Y.S.R. Prasad, former chairman of India’s entire state-run civilian nuclear program. He is reported to have visited with Iran’s nuclear establishment several times and transferred technology to extract tritium, a material necessary to make smaller, more efficient missile-deliverable nuclear warheads. India is demanding that the United States drop its sanctions against Prasad, who is one of the most honored members of India’s nuclear elite. He also is one of the eight leading Indian nuclear scientists who recently wrote Singh protesting the nuclear deal’s encroachment on India’s freedom to expand its nuclear arsenal and to conduct a foreign policy independent of Washington.

A key concern he and his distinguished colleagues raised in their letter (which Singh noted in his address) relates to the strategic cooperation agreement India reached with Iran in 2003. The House of Representatives has been worried about India’s ties to Iran and considered conditioning U.S. nuclear cooperation on India’s supporting allied efforts to block Iran’s nuclear program. This, however, would be a deal breaker for India, Bush administration officials warned. The House listened, backed down, and instead simply expressed its desire for Indian support against Iran’s nuclear program in the report that accompanied its enabling legislation. For India, though, this was still intolerable. “We cannot accept introduction of extraneous issues on foreign policy,” Singh explained. “Any prescriptive suggestions in this regard are not acceptable to us.”

Was a strategic recalibration of the US-India relationship long overdue? You bet. But the Bush administration’s typically clumsy diplomacy with respect to the deal threatens to take a wobbly nonproliferation regime and smash it to bits, without any clear strategy for what’s going to follow in its wake. And now, to the extent the nuclear deal has become a referendum on US-India relations, it’s far too late to torpedo the deal without risking serious damage in those relations. We now find ourselves in a bind where any of the possible outcomes, whether the deal’s passage, its dying on our side, or its being killed on India’s side, are going to have pretty bad consequences.

Here you had a good idea (improve strategic ties with India) that was implemented in such a way that it created a host of negative consequences. It didn’t have to happen this way.