Indo-U.S. Nuclear Accord Good for India, Bomb for U.S.?

Date: 03-07-2006

HONOLULU (Mar. 7) — The Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement reached on U.S. President George W. Bush’s recent trip to New Delhi is overall, “positive but unbalanced” according to Itty Abraham, an East-West Center Washington research fellow.

Abraham, an expert in nuclear issues in South Asia, says, “The nuclear deal is an excellent deal for India (but) I’m not so sure it’s a good deal for the United States. It remains to be seen exactly what the U.S. is getting out of it.”

One of the important gains for India is obvious, according to Abraham. “India is running out of uranium, it’s not going to have enough uranium to fuel its own reactors for more than another ten years, so it obviously needed new sources of supply. It couldn’t buy them as long as there were international sanctions on India for having tested (a nuclear weapon) in 1998.” Abraham is quite sure that if the U.S. Congress clears the bilateral agreement, international nuclear regulatory groups will go along and India will be able to source new fuel for its reactors as well as purchase advanced reactors on the international market.

Abraham notes that for India a choice had to be made about which sector of the program, the civilian or the military, would get its dwindling fuel supplies. He says now the choice is very clear. The military. The new agreement, even though it has built-in safeguards, leaves the door open to fuel India’s strategic nuclear program for years to come.

“So even though a number of Indian reactors will come under safeguards for the first time, that isn’t really the story. The story is which reactors have been left out of the agreement, what those reactors are good for, and what this means for India’s strategic program. What this agreement now allows India to do is to take not only some of its reprocessed fuel from existing reactors but all the new uranium that they mine and divert it to the military program without any sanctions.” Something the East-West Center fellow says is “one of the things that, I think, most people reading the agreement found difficult to believe that the U.S. would actually make this possible, but that’s what it seems to be.”

There are other advantages for India in the agreement that covers more than just the nuclear issue. Abraham notes that the agreement will force India’s secretive and at times heavy-handed Atomic Energy Commission to operate in a more efficient and transparent way.

And then there is the matter of face.

“It’s difficult to understand outside India how much this nuclear program meant to India as a mark of its independence, as a mark of its sovereignty, as a mark of its standing for something in the world.” Through the agreement, the United States is acknowledging India’s right to be a nuclear nation and to possess nuclear weapons.

Washington, too, gained a few things from the agreement. One of the most important is that it is now able to “de-hyphenate” India-Pakistan. Foreign policy on the subcontinent can now be conducted without marrying the two South Asia rivals together. Something that Abraham sees the Bush administration heralding. Especially with so little to show in other arenas, “I think they are going to turn around and say this transformation in Indo-U.S. relations must stand as THE foreign policy accomplishment of this administration.”

The United States also sees strategic opportunities in the new agreement.

Abraham says that many policymakers in Washington see India as being able to help in the War on Terror, to play a larger role in South Asia, and to be a counterbalance to or help contain China in the long-term. Abraham also says the U.S. hopes that India will support the U.S. line on other global issues. Just how much of a player India will be, and if it will follow Washington’s playbook, still has to be determined, he said.

In all, Abraham sums up the New Delhi agreement as a huge win for India.

“I think on balance, this was a fantastic deal for India in terms of its own interests … and their ability to get something from the United States without giving up much in return.” Abraham adds, “What this agreement means for the U.S. is that it no longer has a functioning non-proliferation policy, exacerbating existing problems with Iran and North Korea, and that it will most likely have to assuage Pakistan with increased weapons supplies and other forms of aid. Not good news for an administration which is steadily using up its dwindling political capital on Capitol Hill.”


Itty Abraham may be reached at 202-327-9757 or at

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center