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Nobel Laureates Pitch In Against the Indo-US Nuclear Deal

A. Vinod Kumar was Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 19, 2006

    As the Indo-US nuclear deal prepares to enter the US Congress for the final debate after a seemingly successful round of technical talks in New Delhi this month, critics of the deal in Washington have consolidated their efforts to place last-minute hindrances against its safe passage. The latest in the list of naysayers is a group of Nobel laureates, who assembled under the banner of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in Washington on June 14 to release an open letter cautioning members of the Congress about the consequences of the nuclear deal to US non-proliferation efforts.

    The letter, signed by 37 Nobel laureates, demands that the pact not be approved in its current form, contending that it would "weaken the existing non-proliferation regime without providing an acceptable substitute." Arguing that bilateral and ad hoc agreements would undercut US and world security, the group gives a clarion call for a new international framework to replace the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Though the non-proliferation lobby has often discoursed on amendments needed in the existing NPT-based non-proliferation regime, this letter has gone a step ahead in endorsing the long-held notion that the NPT is obsolete. However, neither the group nor their backers have expanded on the prospective nature and structure of such a new framework. Instead, they make a submission that "new agreements must preserve the many strengths of the current treaty and increase international participation." Interestingly, despite their opposition to the deal, the group favours developing stronger ties with India.

    While advocating the potentials of nuclear energy to meet global energy needs, the group argues that a rapid growth of civilian nuclear power would increase the availability of fissile materials and fuel production facilities worldwide, thereby increasing the scope for building more nuclear weapons. The laureates, therefore, appeal for international efforts to design new proliferation controls with the participation of India and other powers. The most significant remark in the letter is but a subtle aside on unrealised nuclear disarmament goals - a point often ignored by non-proliferation ayatollahs in recent debates. The laureates call upon the nuclear weapon powers to "renounce the legitimacy of nuclear weapons and reduce their number to levels far below the requirements of existing agreements."

    The composition of the Nobel laureates' group itself is unique, considering that it is packed with people of eminence revered for their contributions to medicine, economics and chemistry, though accompanied by a handful of physicists. As an Indian commentator rightly pointed out, in the complex politics of non-proliferation in Washington, expertise in one area need not be necessarily credible in another. With such credibility of expertise in question, it should be assumed that this campaign might not get significant weightage in the Congressional debate, and at best would serve the purpose of a devil's advocate at a time when the debate over the deal has shifted to process-related issues. Nonetheless, the timing of the letter demonstrates the desperate attempts by the non-proliferation lobby to pool its energies to influence the US Congress when negotiations on the nuclear deal have reached a critical stage.

    In this context, the FAS meeting also became a forum for some known non-proliferation ayatollahs, including Leonard Weiss and Michael Krepon, to sharpen their attacks against the deal. Expressing concerns that the possible creation of a nuclear fuel bank would reduce the incentive for India to continue its moratorium on nuclear testing, Krepon gave an evidently prejudiced warning that India has the 'willpower' to break the global moratorium on testing. At a time when even the Bush administration had endorsed India's commitment to its unilateral moratorium and attributed such issues to future security contexts, the concerted efforts by this lobby to invoke the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into the legislation is an attempt to introduce a clear spoiler. Many in Washington have already questioned any moral right Congressmen would have to raise the CTBT clause when they themselves had refused to ratify the Treaty.

    Similarly, both Krepon and Weiss brewed their prosaic concerns on India's commitment to global non-proliferation efforts - a pledge New Delhi has reiterated time and again ever since the deal was announced. Such apprehensions have become commonplace, given that India is yet to fully commit on some counter-proliferation initiatives promoted by Washington. Weiss, on his part, warned that the agreement would encourage Pakistan to obtain a similar deal with China and 'may rev up the use of the Khan network'. However, no such critical remarks followed on the failed US attempts to penalise the protagonists of the clandestine nuclear black market or admonish Pakistan for its role in it. This evokes little surprise, as the non-proliferation lobby is known to be protective of Pakistan while persistently training its guns on the Indian nuclear programme. As an endnote, Weiss even warned of a possible nuclear arms race between India and China!

    While the White House might largely ignore this campaign, the meaningful aspect of this event for New Delhi is the statement by Michael Levi at the venue. Some Indian analysts had commended a recent Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report on the nuclear pact, co-authored by Levi and Charles Ferguson, as being supportive of the deal. Levi used this opportunity to clarify that the CFR report, released earlier this month, was not an endorsement of the nuclear pact, but that it only accepted some diplomatic realities. "This is far from a perfect deal," Levi said, adding that he expected President Bush to toe a harder line in his negotiations with India. However, Levi conceded that the agreement is an opportunity for the Congress to address new non-proliferation challenges.

    As both the Indian and US governments work through the nitty-gritties of the 123 agreement and prepare for a debate and vote at the full House of Representatives and the Senate, it would be worthwhile to remember that most of these arguments might reverberate in some form or the other in the Congress for which the Bush administration would need credible responses at hand. Since the nuclear agreement could be signed only after the passage of requisite legislations at the Congress, New Delhi also has to prepare itself for a long haul at the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, where more impediments are likely to be in store.