India, the US and nuclear proliferation
Deeply perturbed over the development, India has asked the United States to withdraw sanctions it has imposed against two Indian nuclear scientists accused by Washington of transferring technology for weapons of mass destruction and missile secrets to Iran.
New Delhi is particularly worried about the timing. This has happened soon after President George W Bush's Democratic challenger Senator John F Kerry and then he himself named nuclear proliferation as "the single most serious threat to the national security of the United States". The fear is that this may turn out to be a precursor to a wider sanctions regime on the unsubstantiated excuse of Indian nuclear proliferation based on US intelligence reports - some of which have proved to be laughably outlandish in Iraq.
It is possible, high-level Indian officials feel, that this is merely a case of some officials in the US administration trying to score points by showing their alacrity in fighting nuclear proliferation at this late stage in their four-year term, even though this has clearly not been their priority in recent years, as is illustrated by the long rope given to Pakistani nuclear scientist Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program and the apparent mastermind of a global nuclear smuggling network. Khan has not even been interviewed by any non-Pakistani investigator, much less been interrogated by officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as should have happened immediately after his activities came to light.
To rub salt into Indian wounds, as it were, US companies have turned out in force - Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, United Defense and several smaller companies - to exhibit their wares at the same venue in Pakistan where for years Khan's company, Khan Research Laboratories, used to hand out glossy brochures advertising specialized equipment for making a nuclear bomb - IDEAS 2004 in Karachi. In what appeared to one observer, analyst Joshua Kucera, to be an oblique reference to the most notorious past IDEAS exhibitor - Khan - Pakistan's missiles, including the nuclear-capable Shaheen II, are displayed outside, behind a sign reading "Technological Demonstration - not for sale". Interestingly, in a display of Orwellian black humor, the slogan for this year's version of Pakistan's biggest arms show is "Arms for Peace".
The US imposed weapons sanctions against Pakistan in the 1990s after it found out about that country's secret nuclear-bomb program. But then came September 11, 2001, and the war in Afghanistan, where Pakistani support was required to fight their proteges, the Taliban. Pakistan once again became America's new best friend, a frontline sate in the "war on terror", and the sanctions were lifted.
Although Pakistan is still a state spawning Islamic fundamentalists and obscurantists from its madrassas (religious seminaries), Washington has opened up its pocketbooks again. Over the next five years, Pakistan will get at least US$1.5 billion in defense aid from the US as part of a $3 billion aid package. An announcement made at IDEAS 2004 suggests where some of that money is going to be spent: Pakistani officials revealed that the US is ready to reverse its longtime opposition to selling new F-16 fighter jets to Islamabad. The chief of the Pakistani air force told a journalist that Washington wants to provide the F-16s, in part, to help Pakistan fight Islamist extremists in the tribal areas in the northwestern part of the country, though anyone in strategic business should know that if ever these aircraft were used in combat they would be used against India.
To clarify matters on its part, Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna told reporters that the two Indian scientists had sold neither materials, equipment nor technology. "No transfer of sensitive technology has taken place," he said. "Our track record in this is well known. The US government has been asked to review the issue and withdraw the sanctions."
Last week, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a press briefing in Washington that two Indian scientists were among "14 entities" against which the US has imposed sanctions. He did not specify which entities were individuals or firms. But he said there were seven from China, two from India and one each in Belarus, North Korea, Russia, Spain and Ukraine. "The penalties apply to the entities themselves and not to countries or governments," Boucher said. The penalties prohibit those named under the sanctions from visiting the US or doing business with any US-based companies.
Explaining the innocence of the Indian scientists, Sarna said one of them has never been to Iran and the other one had not visited the country since mid-2003. "It has been conveyed that we don't share the US views," he added.
India is worried over the impact this controversy may have on the efforts India is making for the transfer of sensitive technology from the United States. India and the US have deepened technology cooperation over the past few months. Last month, Washington announced it had agreed to lift export controls on equipment for nuclear facilities in India after New Delhi assured the US it would address that country's non-proliferation concerns. The deal was the first phase under the "Next Steps in Strategic Partnership With India" (NSSP) agreed in January between Bush and former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The State Department did not detail the specific offenses by the two scientists, but officials said it involved alleged assistance to Iran's nuclear program during the first half of 2003. Analyst Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Washington-based Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center, was quoted by news agencies as having speculated that the sanctions may relate to India's breakthrough development of an economic way to produce tritium, a radioactive isotope used in nuclear bombs. The US and other Western countries accuse Iran of using a civilian nuclear energy program as a cover to develop atomic weapons, a charge Tehran vehemently denies.
It is a measure of the close defense ties developing between the two countries that US forces are seeking to benefit from the vast experience the Indian military has had in fighting wars in high-altitude mountains, glaciers and deserts, and even in urban warfare, in quelling local disturbances as India has been fighting insurgencies in its northeast for more than half a century.
Only this week, beginning Monday, the Indian navy for the first time displayed its capability with the long-range maritime and submarine hunter aircraft P3C Orions in what are euphemistically called joint exercises with the US Navy off the Goa coast. In the sixth of the Indo-US series of "Malabar Exercises", the frontline Indian anti-submarine warfare ships matched their skills with the US Pacific Fleet's Los Angeles class nuclear submarine as well as a Ticonderoga missile cruiser and an Oliver Hazard Perry class guided-missile frigate. New Delhi and Washington are negotiating for the Indian navy acquiring 10 P3C Orions on a government-to-government sale to augment its depleted maritime capabilities.
On its part, the Indian navy is in the process of attaining higher skills in intercepting unknown vessels, carrying out search and seizure on the high seas to tackle terrorism-related activities as well as protecting the country from external aggression. Intercepting vessels on the high seas, called Visual Boarding Search and Seize (VBSS), is being carried out extensively by the US Navy, and India is right now engaged in learning more about the technicalities of the operation, said C S Patham, commanding officer of INS Mysore. The ship is docked at Mormugao Port in Goa to take part in the India-US joint naval exercises - Malabar 2004.
Only last month, the US administration lifted decades-old US export restrictions on equipment for New Delhi's commercial space program and nuclear power facilities. "It's an odd time to be lifting those restrictions" when the administration is concerned enough about India's cooperation with Iran to impose new sanctions, said Sokolski. The new sanctions are consistent with Under Secretary of State John Bolton's determination, officials claimed, to enforce non-proliferation laws, even if it upsets countries where the US is pursuing better ties. Bolton oversees non-proliferation policy.
US officials also claimed that the Indian scientists' so-called proliferation activities were discussed with the government in New Delhi in advance and sanctions imposed only after New Delhi failed to take action. The administration waived sanctions on Indian companies "four or five times in the last couple of years", but if the government did not take concrete action to redress the situation sanctions could not be waived, one official said.
Another official stressed that the two scientists, not the Indian government, were sanctioned, and New Delhi "needs to do some punishing of people like this itself and prevent these things from happening". Sokolski sees India competing for influence in Iran against nuclear rival Pakistan, whose top scientist Khan ran a black market that sold atomic technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea before being stopped by Islamabad at US prodding.
Pakistani intelligence had earlier accused India of helping Iran when the latter admitted last year that it had received foreign help, and media reports had named Pakistan as one of countries whose nuclear technology Iran was believed to be using. Editors of the Pakistani newspaper the Daily Times of Lahore, who have for long been passionately advocating normalization of ties with India, had surprisingly concluded, even from their own analysis, that India was involved (see Iran nukes and the South Asian puzzle , August 30, 2003).
India had not bothered then to respond vigorously to the Pakistani allegations, probably believing that the charge was too outlandish to be given credence. The Indian record on nuclear non-proliferation has been excellent. It has had very close relations with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi's Libya, both leaders perpetually on the lookout for nuclear technology in the 1970s and 1980s and in a position to pay very well in cash and kind (oil), but despite its weak economy, always in need of foreign exchange, particularly to import oil, India never gave a thought to the many blandishments offered.
One of the reasons the US and other nuclear powers are wary of India on the nuclear front, however, is that it was not party to any aspect of the international non-proliferation regime until 1997, when it signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. Among the significant treaties it has not signed are the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Thus India has a very limited safeguards agreement with the IAEA, which does not cover any of its nuclear research facilities. That is why after its tests in 1998 the US was hard put to find any multilateral mechanism through which to sanction India.
India's biggest regret, in the present controversy, however, is the awkward timing of the accusation, which virtually seeks to put Indian scientists at par with Pakistan's rogue scientists. India is going all out to ensure that the NSSP initiative is invested with some real substance and at least the US Department of Commerce has claimed that things are going very well in bilateral relations. When an Indian journalist wrote an editorial last week claiming that the NSSP was devoid of any real substance, Matthew S Borman, deputy assistant secretary for export administration, US Department of Commerce, wrote a lengthy rejoinder to counter the claim.
On its part, India is determined to persuade the US that its project of spreading democracy requires that it develop special ties with democratic countries and shuns dictatorships such as Pakistan, even if it needs to use them for a while in some project. The US, in according "major non-NATO ally" status to Pakistan recently, has drawn criticism in India.
The recent and the first meeting between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Bush had also appeared to have gone well. The new United Progressive Alliance government is in any case keen to demonstrate that it has been able to maintain the forward momentum created by the previous government in developing close strategic ties with the US, despite the sanctions imposed after the 1998 Pokhran II nuclear tests.
Indian worries were best expressed in an editorial in the Indian Express (October 4):
As happened in the Iraq case, it is possible that interested parties have got together to slap the charge on retired individuals trying to make it generically somewhat similar to the proliferation undertaken by Dr A Q Khan. These sanctions have the potential of slowing down, if not actually derailing, the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership between the two countries. It is not enough for the Indian government to ask the US to review its assessment since no such transfer has taken place. The issue goes well beyond sanctions on two retired individuals who are unlikely to be affected beyond their prospects for travel to the US. This case is far more likely to be used by the non-proliferation hardliners in the US as an example of poor Indian commitment to non-proliferation, strategic literature is going to be recycling half-truths to paint India as a new source of proliferation. What is needed is greater transparency on the issues involved. If, however, there is any substance at all in US claim, then we owe it ourselves to find ways to ensuring such cases do not recur.
New Delhi is hoping that the present controversy will soon blow away and the countries will be able to get down to business as usual in the shortest possible time. But there is also apprehension that the inexplicable and totally unfounded accusation may be a precursor to reimposition or further tightening of the sanctions regime promulgated after the nuclear tests of 1998. These sanctions had been removed primarily because they had to be removed in the case of Pakistan, which became a close US ally after September 11 and the US could not be seen to be treating the two newly-proclaimed nuclear weapon states differently. In any case, the US has persisted with treating India and Pakistan at par with each other, a hyphen that India has long resented, but to no avail.