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The biggest news this weekend was not Senator Obama’s This Week interview, or Tom Brady’s left knee. Rather, it came out of Vienna, where a somewhat obscure intergovernmental organization–the Nuclear Suppliers Group–succumbed to heavy US lobbying and agreed to allow India to receive nuclear technology and know-how. The quote above is how the Arms Control Association’s Daryl Kimball describes the decision.

The quick back story is this. In 1974, the Indian government detonated a nuclear weapon that was fashioned from diverted civilian nuclear technology. This was a first. Never before had civilian nuclear technology been used to create a nuclear weapons program. To make matters worse, India is not even a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So, to prevent something like this from happening again, countries with nuclear materials and know-how banded together to impose strict conditions on the sale or transfer of civilian nuclear technology. This became the Vienna-based Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Fast forward thirty years. India is still not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Nuclear Suppliers Group still refuses to transfer or sell of nuclear materials to India. That is, until Saturday, when the NSG issued a waiver permitting the transfer of civilian nuclear technology to India, thereby unraveling a key tenet of non-proliferation: if a country diverts civilian nuclear technology to a weapons program it will be denied access to civilian technologies.

Why the turnaround? The Bush administration considers India (the world’s largest democracy) a key regional ally and wants to reward New Dehli’s pro-American alliance. Many (though not all) members of congress agreed in principal that India’s nuclear sanctions should be lifted.

The problem, though, is that this deal sets a disturbing precedent that might complicate negotiations with other proliferators like Iran (which, after all, also claims to only be pursuing a civilian nuclear program). Then, of course, there are regional consequences of the India waiver, namely the knock-on effect it would have on Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions. Daryl Kimball puts it succinctly:

As a result, the India-specific exemption from NSG guidelines severely erodes the credibility of global efforts to ensure that access to peaceful nuclear trade and technology is available only to those states that meet global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament standards.

Also, nuclear fuel sales to India for Indian power reactors may marginally help increase India’s energy output, but at the same time it will free up India’s limited domestic uranium supplies to be used exclusively for bomb-making. This will lead Pakistan to follow suit and help fuel the South Asian arms race.

Finally, Paul Kerr explores the deleterious effect of this deal on American diplomacy at the United Nations. In 1998 the Security Council passed resolution 1172 in the wake of dueling nuclear test explosions by India and Pakistan. The resolution called on member states to “prevent the export of equipment, materials or technology that could in any way assist programmes in India or Pakistan for nuclear weapons or for ballistic missiles capable of delivering such weapons, and welcomes national policies adopted and declared in this respect.”

This NSG waiver completely undermines that resolution and in the process undermines the Security Council’s non-proliferation work more broadly. If you think this doesn’t really matter, consider that the Council is currently the only body trying to coax Iran back from the nuclear brink.

We need to be propping these institutions up, not tearing them down.

(Photo from Flickr)

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