India-US: Nuclear Ayatollahs and the Politics of Non-proliferation

In a completely partisan and somewhat condescending editorial in early-July 2014, The New York Times wrote: “If India wants to be part of the nuclear suppliers group, it needs to sign the treaty that prohibits nuclear testing, stop producing fissile material, and begin talks with its rivals on nuclear weapons containment.”

The editorial is sharply critical of and vehemently opposes India’s efforts to acquire membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). It bases its criticism on a report by IHS Jane’s that India is in the process of enhancing its capacity to enrich uranium – ostensibly to power the nuclear reactors on the INS Arihant and future SSBNs, but much in excess of the requirement. This, the editorial says, is causing anxiety to the Pakistanis and has raised the spectre of an arms race in Southern Asia.

It is obvious that the editorial writer understands neither the background to nor the present context of India’s nuclear deterrence. As stated in a letter written by then Prime Minister AB Vajpayee to US President Bill Clinton after India’s nuclear tests at Pokhran in May 1998 (in an unfriendly act, the letter was leaked to the media by the White House), the primary reason for India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons was the existential threat posed by two nuclear-armed states on India’s borders with both of which India had fought wars over territorial disputes. The China-Pakistan nuclear and missile nexus, including the clandestine transfer of technology from China to Pakistan, has irrevocably changed the strategic balance in Southern Asia by helping Pakistan to neutralise India’s superiority in conventional forces and has helped Pakistan to wage a proxy war under its nuclear umbrella.

Since then, the nuclear environment in Southern Asia has been further destabilised. China’s ASAT (anti-satellite weapons) test, BMD (ballistic missile defence) programme, efforts aimed at acquiring MIRV (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle) capability and ambiguity in its no first use (NFU) commitment, while simultaneously rapidly modernising the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) and its efforts to establish a ‘string of pearls’ by way of ports in the Indian Ocean, are a cause for concern for India. Similarly, Pakistan is engaged in the acquisition of ‘full spectrum’ nuclear capability, including a triad and tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs), which invariably lower the threshold of use. Pakistan has stockpiled a larger number of nuclear warheads (100 to 110) than India (80 to 90) and is continuing to add to its numbers as it has been given unsafeguarded nuclear reactors by China. In view of several mujahideen attacks on Pakistan’s armed forces’ establishments during the last few years, there is apprehension in the international community, entirely justified, that some of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads could fall into jihadi hands.

Some statements made by IHS Jane’s in its report are factually incorrect. The research group has assessed that the new Indian uranium enrichment facility at the Indian Rare Metals Plant near Mysore would enhance India’s ability to produce ‘weapons-grade’ uranium to twice the amount needed for its planned nuclear-powered SSBN fleet. The report does not say how the research group arrived at this deduction. Also, the nuclear power reactors of SSBNs require uranium to be enriched only up to 30 to 40 per cent. Weapons-grade uranium must be enriched to levels over 90 per cent.

For the record, the Government of India has denied reports that it is ‘covertly’ expanding its nuclear arsenal. An Indian official told The Hindu (Atul Aneja, “India trashes report on covert nuclear facility,” 22 June 2014) that the report was “mischievously timed” as it came just before a meeting of the NSG. He said, “It is interesting that such reports questioning India’s nuclear credentials are planted at regular intervals.”

The US Government also dismissed the report (“US dismisses report on India covertly increasing nukes”, The Hindu, 21 June 2014) as “highly speculative.” The US State Department Spokesperson said, “We remain fully committed to the terms of the 123 agreement and to enhancing our strategic relationship. Nothing we provide to India under the civ-nuke agreement may be used to enhance India’s military capability or add to its military stockpile…”

The Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement of 2005 gives an exemption to India’s nuclear weapons facilities and stockpiles of nuclear weapons fuel from inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and India is at liberty to set up additional military facilities using unsafeguarded materials if these are considered necessary. India has agreed to bring 14 nuclear power reactors under international safeguards. Eight military facilities, including reactors, enrichment and reprocessing facilities and three heavy water reactors will remain out of the purview of IAEA safeguards.

India has been a responsible nuclear power and has a positive record on non-proliferation. India has consistently supported total nuclear disarmament and is in favour of negotiations for the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). Non-proliferation ayatollahs should channelise their efforts towards identifying and shaming the real proliferators.

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