India, Iran, and the Case for Double Standards

All but lost in the controversies surrounding Iraq and Iran is a major initiative involving a third “I” country: India. Sometime this year, the United States Congress is likely to vote on the “US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative,” signed when President Bush visited New Delhi in March.

The agreement paves the way for American exports of nuclear technologies and materials for use in India’s civilian nuclear program. In return, India has pledged to open 14 of its 22 existing and planned nuclear power reactors, as well as all future civil reactors, to international inspection.

The agreement matters for at least two reasons. First, the accord symbolizes the arrival of a new geopolitical relationship between the world’s two largest democracies that were often on opposite sides during the Cold War. This development may be of historic importance if it not only leads to a deepening of US-Indian technical and economic ties, but also strengthens their ability to tackle regional and global challenges, ranging from the proliferation of nuclear weapons to climate change.

But the proposed US-India accord is attracting notice for a second, and far more controversial, reason: concern that it could weaken, rather than advance, efforts to resist the further worldwide spread of nuclear weapons. Critics charge that the agreement undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by letting India have its cake (nuclear weapons) and eat it, too (by giving it access to nuclear fuel and technology). They allege that the agreement creates a double standard, according to which only some countries may possess nuclear weapons.