WASHINGTON -- President Bush recently returned from India and Pakistan burdened by yet another foreign policy headache of his own making.
In an effort to build closer strategic ties with the New Delhi government, the administration has said Mr. Bush will ask Congress to make special exceptions to long-standing U.S. nonproliferation laws in order to permit the United States and other countries to sell nuclear materials and reactors to India.
In exchange, India says it will implement a complex, phased plan to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities and put many - but not all - of its power reactors under safeguards to ensure foreign assistance wouldn't directly contribute to its weapons program.
But as members of Congress learn of the details, they are realizing the benefits are overstated and the damage to global efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons would be severe. Now it is up to Congress to protect core U.S. nonproliferation values and security interests that are at risk.
Nuclear trade has been banned since India blasted its way onto the nuclear scene with its 1974 bomb test, which used plutonium produced by a reactor from Canada that was to be used only for peaceful purposes. Current law and international export rules bar trade with states (including India) that are not members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and that do not accept comprehensive safeguards over all nuclear facilities to guard against diversion for weapons.
Mr. Bush claims the proposal will "bring India into the nonproliferation mainstream." Don't believe it. The separation plan proposed by India is not credible from a nonproliferation standpoint, and the safeguards are inadequate. Worse still, the U.S.-Indian nuclear plan would implicitly endorse, if not indirectly assist, the growth of India's nuclear arsenal.
In a rush to meet artificial summit deadlines, the White House caved in to the demands of India's nuclear bomb lobby. Under the deal, India would be permitted to keep major existing and future nuclear facilities shrouded in secrecy and use them to manufacture more nuclear weapons.
India agreed only to allow international safeguards on 14 of its 20-some nuclear power reactors. The Bush team dropped its demands that India allow safeguards on its fast breeder reactors, which can produce especially large quantities of bomb-quality plutonium.
These gaping loopholes would allow India to increase its capacity to produce nuclear bombs from six to 10 a year to several dozen a year.
In addition, the plan would allow India to use the spent nuclear fuel in existing civilian power reactors for weapons purposes. That would allow it to extract the 4,100 pounds of plutonium in those fuel rods and potentially build over 1,000 more nuclear bombs. By opening the spigot for foreign nuclear fuel supplies to India, this deal also could free India's existing limited domestic capacity of uranium for both energy and weapons to be singularly devoted to arms production in the future.
It is not in the United States' strategic interests to ignore the expansion of India's current arsenal of 50 to 100 nuclear weapons, which could prompt neighboring Pakistan to increase its nuclear and missile arsenals.
The Indian expansion also would make it harder to curb China's ongoing nuclear force modernization. Making special exceptions for India also invites others to seek exceptions to nonproliferation barriers for their preferred economic and political partners. Already, Pakistan is asking the United States and China to give it a similar nuclear assistance loophole.
What can be done now?
Congress and governments committed to nonproliferation should press India and Pakistan to halt the production of fissile material for weapons pending a verifiable global production ban as called for in a U.N. Security Council Resolution adopted days after India's 1998 nuclear tests. Four of the five original nuclear weapon states have announced a halt to fissile material production for weapons. The fifth, China, is also believed to have stopped.
Indian leaders say that a fissile production cutoff would be a "deal-breaker." Perhaps it is. But if India is only interested in a "minimum credible deterrent," as it says it is, there is no need for additional nuclear bomb material.
Of course, it is up to India to choose whether it keeps its nuclear weapons options open or it wants international cooperation to help expand its energy output with nuclear technology. But it is also the responsibility of the United States and other responsible nonproliferation treaty member states not to aid and abet any other state's nuclear weapons program.
If Congress addresses the deal's proliferation risks, bilateral Indo-U.S. relations will still prosper and the nuclear nonproliferation system will not unravel.
Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of the Arms Control Association. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.