Siddharth Varadarajan

Reviled by some in India as the "ayatollahs of non-proliferation,"Michael Kreponof the Stimson Center andLeonard Spectorof the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies are leading the charge against the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement in Washington. In an interview during a recent visit to Delhi, they spoke about the reasons for their opposition. Excerpts:

Condoleezza Rice has said offering nuclear commerce to India is the price Washington must pay to get the Indians to cut off energy links with Iran. Are you comfortable with this kind of trade-off?Michael Krepon: It's odd for the Bush administration to suggest it's OK for India to import Iranian natural gas by tanker but not by pipeline. It's also odd to support a peace process in South Asia but to oppose infrastructure that can help with the peace process. That said, Iran does pose a serious challenge to the nuclear non-proliferation regime that is detrimental to U.S. and Indian national security interests. So we have to find ways to square this circle.

Leonard Spector: There is a timing issue too. Availability of gas from Iran will certainly come faster from either means - pipelines or ships - than even the signing of a nuclear agreement because the whole nuclear area is so difficult from the commercial standpoint, even assuming everything else was taken care of.

But in the medium to long term, from the carbon emissions point of view and because of hydrocarbon depletion, many argue nuclear power has to play a bigger role in India's energy mix. Why do you oppose nuclear cooperation with India in the form the Bush administration is proposing?Leonard Spector: The problem is that in order to facilitate nuclear trade with India, it is necessary to change non-proliferation rules which have applied since 1978. I think the U.S. and virtually the whole spectrum of Congress and even critics like us would be prepared to do that if the deal were structured the right way and if the impact were both to improve relations with India and its energy situation but not to do damage to the non-proliferation regime.

But what kind of specific damage do you anticipate? Talk me through the worst-case proliferation scenarios you foresee if this deal goes through tomorrow.Michael Krepon: The non-proliferation system is based on principles, standards, and norms. And the Bush administration's initiative with India seeks a country-specific exception to these. If the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) does not agree to a country-specific exception, then the rule of consensus, which is part of the system when it comes to nuclear commerce, would be broken. An exception would be made for India, other nuclear suppliers would make exceptions for their customers, China for Pakistan, Russia for Iran and then someone else for someone else. The regime will be negatively affected.

I don't see how. Domestic U.S. legislation since 1978 prohibits nuclear trade with India but until the NSG adopted additional rules in 1992 banning trade with countries unwilling to accept full-scope IAEA safeguards, nuclear commerce with India was perfectly legal and consistent with the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Today, it is only this rule that has to be changed, not the NPT, and I don't see how it damages the non-proliferation system.Leonard Spector: I think your fundamental point is correct. This isn't the NPT but the supplier rule...

And that rule itself is a case of the wrong medicine being prescribed for the right disease. The disease was the IAEA's failure to find Iraq's secret nuclear programme before 1991, a country which had full-scope safeguards. Banning commerce with India, Pakistan, and Israel was to bark up the wrong tree.Leonard Spector: I think the reason for the NSG rule was not the Iraq situation per se, because for many years the U.S. was trying to get this rule adopted. What you have had is a core framework, the NPT, and there have been add-ons built around it. So do you want to abandon that principle starkly, or in a way that does as little damage as possible to the regime that you've established. And I think there may be elements in the nuclear deal that may be modified, embellished or enhanced in a way that even if the rule is changed, the overall regime is strengthened.

Michael Krepon: I would propose a principled approach rather than a country-specific exception. So if the rules of nuclear commerce are to be changed to accommodate the new world in which we live, they ought to be changed in accordance with principles that apply to everyone. So, for example, one principle would be that if a country is a responsible international actor with respect to non-proliferation and on the question of terrorism, the rules might be changed. But we change those rules on the basis of the principle, not on the basis of a country exception.

But the `rule' you are proposing - if it is done that way - India would get through. Pakistan probably wouldn't but India would. So where is the hitch? Why are you against India accessing nuclear commerce?Michael Krepon: That would be one principle, but it's not the only one. I would propose crafting a set of principles that do not do violence to a system that 185 countries now adhere to. It makes no sense to wreck a system 185 countries belong to in order to favour one country that does not. I think this issue can be addressed in a satisfactory way so that the international community and the U.S. Congress are not faced with a stark either-or choice - either you favour India, or you do serious damage to the non-proliferation system. That's not a good choice.

I want to look at your scenario of country A helping country B. Let us set aside the case of Iran for the moment, because legally speaking, there's nothing the U.S. and India are proposing to do that would alter the rules Iran as a member of NPT and Russia as a member of NSG have to adhere to in their commerce... Michael Krepon: No, we are thinking of changing those rules because of the India deal.

But Iran is a member of the NPT, it has accepted full-scope safeguards and Russia can sell anything it likes. So to come back to my question, how would the world be more insecure if safeguarded fuel and facilities were to come to a firewalled civilian programme in India and even Pakistan from America and China. How would this make the world more unstable?Leonard Spector: India undertook activities which the U.S. condemned many years ago, i.e. to pursue nuclear weapons and keep the option open and move it along. I think, in principle, we are still unhappy this happened and that India continues to have that programme. But we want to find a way to move forward. One way is to set a very high barrier which says we will reconsider cases like India if a country has a decade of disciplined export behaviour, if a country has demonstrated its readiness to apply international export control regimes, if the country is pro-active in supporting global non-proliferation norms, something like that. India would meet this test because its behaviour has been exemplary for a long period of time. Pakistan would not, but it might do so at a later stage. The point is to say we are prepared to make an exception but only because India has done so much in terms of helping non-proliferation externally.

So if this condition is embodied in the exception the U.S. wants to introduce in its domestic law and at the NSG, would you then support the deal with India?Michael Krepon: It depends. There is another condition. If one engages in nuclear commerce with country X, then the facilities and equipment should be safeguarded for the duration, not temporarily, so that X doesn't move those into a military programme later. So I think a second condition - and the Bush administration itself has articulated this - is that if commercial activities are entered into, those facilities should be safeguarded in perpetuity.

Robert Joseph introduced that on November 2 but there is a grey area about whether in-perpetuity safeguards are being proposed only for imported fuel and facilities - I don't think India would object - or to indigenous facilities as well.Michael Krepon: I think this is the subject of negotiations.

Leonard Spector: There are no domestically produced facilities. These are Canadian designs. This technology was actually imported from Canada, the first reactors were built with Canadian assistance in Rajasthan, and India in effect reverse-engineered these facilities.

For certain reactors, perhaps, but with very major modifications. These cannot be called Canadian.Leonard Spector: Well, I don't know to what extent, so I would say that safeguards in perpetuity should apply to these as well. But I appreciate the point you are making implicitly... I wouldn't agree but you might consider splitting the difference: perhaps we can look forward, not back at material that was produced.

So you would be comfortable with an agreement which says India is not obliged to make a past accounting for all plutonium ever produced in these to-be-safeguarded facilities?Leonard Spector: That could be the basis for discussion, but there would be one reactor where I would have a problem, CIRUS, which was provided with a peaceful use pledge. So I would also articulate, as one of the principles, that a country should not be in violation of a nuclear trade agreement as I feel India is in respect to CIRUS. But these are elements to work with, they need to be addressed.

I understand from my meetings with Indian interlocutors that India will not go beyond the four corners of the July agreement to accept, for example, a ban on fissile material production. But if one looks within the four corners itself, there is room for non-proliferation rules to be adopted.

Such as?Leonard Spector: If you brought CIRUS out of the military and into the civilian list, you would constrain a certain amount of fissile production right there. And it wouldn't be a ban or cut-off but a partial restriction.

What about the breeder, which is a domestically designed civilian facility?Leonard Spector: The more that goes into civilian the better. There could be some trading - you could have a reactor, may be this one, where both sides agree that a decision can be made a little later. One exception, not a host of exceptions. But my impression is that the breeder is not suitable for military purposes, it's probably a reasonable option to put on the civilian side to try and build a package that looks attractive to Congress.

Both of you gentlemen are lovingly called `ayatollahs of non-proliferation' by establishment-oriented commentators here.Michael Krepon: That is a very objectionable term because these so-called ayatollahs, myself included, wish to improve U.S.-India relations, we wish to do so without demolishing the non-proliferation system.

Name-calling really does not do service to the efforts of those who are trying to balance these two objectives. Name-calling is something that schoolboys do, it is not something that helps to find solutions.