During President Bush's recent visit to India, the United States and India sealed a nuclear agreement. President Bush hailed it as a major step in curbing the spread of nuclear weapons, but opponents of the deal say it will do the opposite and undermine such efforts.
Signing an agreement on nuclear cooperation was the easy part for the leaders of India and the United States. Now comes the hard part of getting their respective legislatures' ratification -- and indications are that it will be a tough sell.
The agreement essentially lifts the U.S. moratorium on nuclear trade with India, thus allowing New Delhi to purchase nuclear materials. In return, India would separate its civilian and military nuclear programs and allow international inspectors access to the civilian nuclear sector for the first time. However, the military side, meaning nuclear weapons, would remain exempt from international scrutiny.
U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns says India, with its booming economy, desperately needs electricity, and nuclear power is the best way for India to get it. He dismisses fears that it will spur an arms race in South Asia, particularly between India and Pakistan.
"We're having trouble understanding the argument that this deal makes it more likely that India's going to engage in an arms buildup", says Burns. "That's not at all the sense that we have from the Indian government. India has a strategic program. The United States and other countries have not recognized that program. This agreement does not recognize that program. But it exists. But our sense, and the very clear signal given by the Indian government to us, is that its future intentions are to build up the civil power of the country so that people will have electricity."
Opponents of the deal say it undercuts efforts to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Michael Krepon, founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington research institute, says it could greatly weaken the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. "If the nuclear deal increases the amount of fissile material in circulation, if it reduces the effectiveness of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, if it causes a rendering of this 'big tent' of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, then the net security consequence of this deal will be very negative, and it would increase the possibility of proliferation and nuclear terrorism," says Krepon.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty, or N.P.T., bars the five declared nuclear powers -- the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain -- from exporting nuclear technology. To make the India deal work, the United States must persuade other countries to lift nuclear export controls for India.
Teresita Schaffer, who until 1998 was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, disagrees that the deal undermines the N.P.T. regime.
"I think that it's got sufficient benefits that we ought to go for it," says Schaffer. "And I do think that long term, the relationship between the United States and India can be one of those things that really shapes Asia and, more broadly, global security. And I think it's something that we ought to be trying to develop."
Schaffer points out that only three countries in the world have refused to sign the N.P.T. - India, neighboring Pakistan, and Israel - and all three have nuclear weapons. The two nations that are attempting to push their way into the nuclear club, Iran and North Korea, have signed the N.P.T.
Pakistan is considered by the United States to be a key player in the war on terror. But the Bush Administration has made it clear that Pakistan cannot expect the same kind of deal that India got.
Teresita Schaffer, now Director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the Bush administration has made it clear that it is betting on India for the long haul.
"Pakistan, as you know, was designated a major non-NATO ally. The whole anti-terrorism thing is very important in the relationship with Pakistan, and has given Pakistan a different kind of special place. But it certainly makes it clear that, looking at the long-term Asian security picture, the United States is putting more of its chips on India," says Schaffer.
The U.S. Bet on India
But what spurred the deal? Most analysts answer: China. Michael Krepon says the United States is hoping that India will prove a counterweight to a booming China.
"We have, in effect, a huge bet that has been placed on the United States-India cooperation in the future against important potential adversaries, like China. And the bet against China counterbalances or outweighs the risk to proliferation. I think that's the construct that the Bush administration adopted," says Krepon.
Some critics charge the United States is bending the rules to suit itself, and that the India nuclear deal allows Iran to argue it is being subjected to discrimination by the West over its nuclear program.
Undersecretary of State Burns says India and Iran are two entirely different cases.
"I think as people look at India and look at Iran, they're going to see a responsible country and an irresponsible country. India's the responsible one, and Iran's the irresponsible one. And the contrast is going to be vivid, and I think it's going to strengthen the sense that we have that we're heading in the right direction with India, and certainly Iran is heading in the wrong direction with what it's intending to do," says Burns.
Analyst Michael Krepon says the India deal will not undermine the efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions as long as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council keep a united front.
"Analyst Teresita Schaffer also points out that India has, at great domestic political cost, voted twice with the United States on the Iran nuclear issue at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.