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Nuclear deal with India wrong-foots administration at NPT review conference May 3, 2010

Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
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Today marks the start of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference.  The Obama administration’s highest profile foreign policy efforts this year all were meant to prepare for this.  These include concluding negotiations on a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), updating the Nuclear Posture Review, and hosting an unprecedented 47-state summit on nuclear security.

President Obama intends for these efforts to demonstrate that we take our disarmament and nonproliferation responsibilities specified by the NPT seriously.  It’s for this reason that his March 29th revision to our nuclear cooperation agreement with India is receiving far less publicity.  The Bush administration originally agreed to permit an Indian nuclear plant to reprocess nuclear fuel supplied by the U.S. for civilian purposes.  President Obama’s revision permits two Indian plants instead of just one and leaves the door open for this to double again to four.

Civilian nuclear cooperation between NPT signatories is not new or remarkable.  India, however, is a non-signatory – a nuclear armed non-signatory.   Indeed, it is one of a handful of states to detonate nuclear devices in the past fifteen years, putting it in the elite company of Pakistan and North Korea.  Allowing India to reprocess American nuclear fuel in its civilian reactors risks catalyzing its military program, which no longer has to compete for fissile material with the civilian energy sector.

The administration intended for START, the Nuclear Posture Review, and the multilateral summit to prepare the ground for the NPT review conference.  Without a doubt, these efforts did.  Yet so too did the agreement with India, which directly contradicts the administration’s other efforts.

Surely other states participating in the NPT review conference will recognize these conflicting policies.  Equally likely is that spoiler states will manipulate these circumstances, using our conflicting positions to loosen their own nonproliferation standards.  After all, if the U.S. is willing to supply a nuclear-armed, non-signatory, weapons-testing state with fissile material, on what basis can it tell other states how to behave?

This is not news to the administration.  Technical components of the deal with India address these questions.  But that is hardly the point.  The risk that India will proliferate fissile material is low, and the reality is that India will always supply its weapons program before turning to the energy sector.

Rather, the point is that the administration has prioritized reinvigorating and extending international rules on nonproliferation, and that the India deal counteracts those efforts.  Other states will be less serious at the negotiating table as a consequence – states that may be more inclined to proliferate or more at risk of losing their stockpiles.

Policies have costs.  Understanding the detailed, empirical budgetary costs is important.  Equally important are opportunity costs.  The opportunity cost of this deal with India may be radioactive, quite literally.

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