US-India pact strains nuclear rules

India's Congress party leadership and the Bush administration were celebrating yesterday after the US Senate finally approved a nuclear cooperation agreement that opens the way for a $14bn investment in new Indian reactors and nuclear plants over the next year alone. The deal also has wider strategic significance, bolstering US-India ties at a time of rising Chinese influence.

President George Bush said the agreement, which took three years to negotiate, would "strengthen our global nuclear non-proliferation efforts, protect the environment, create jobs, and assist India in meeting its growing energy needs responsibly". A spokesman for India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who like Bush views the deal as a legacy issue, described it as "historic and unprecedented".

Independent experts are less enthusiastic. Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said: "The agreement is a non-proliferation disaster. Contrary to the counterfactual claims of proponents and apologists, it does not bring India into the 'non-proliferation mainstream' and India's so-called separation plan is not credible."

Kimball was referring to India's pledge to separate its civilian-related and military-related nuclear activities in return for unrestricted supplies of nuclear fuel and technology for the former. Indian claims that the deal transforms the country into a respectable, mainstream nuclear power are also fiercely disputed. Critics say that Delhi's continuing refusal to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and the comprehensive test ban treaty, and uncertainty over whether it will test more bombs, places it beyond the pale. Worse than that, they say US acquiescence in India's non-compliance with the main nuclear weapons treaties undermines global security.

The reaction of Pakistan (which like India carried out unauthorised nuclear tests in 1998 and has not signed the NPT) was instructive. The prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, said yesterday that Pakistan would demand similar access to nuclear supplies, "and they will have to accommodate us".

Bush has trumpeted his administration's counter-proliferation efforts in recent months, saying he is responding to worries that terrorists as well as "states of concern" such as North Korea, Iran and Syria will obtain or enhance nuclear weapons capability. But progress has been limited.

The India deal is certain to encourage Tehran, for example, in its claims that the west is applying a double standard by penalising what it claims is a similarly peaceful civilian nuclear power generation programme.

At the same time, a leading expert, Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, warned this week that Iran would attain "virtual nuclear weapons status" by the time the next US president is inaugurated in January, three UN sanctions resolutions notwithstanding. Quoting the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report, Milhollin said: "This means that it [Iran] will be able to produce, within a few months of deciding to do so, enough weapons-grade uranium to fuel a bomb."

International attempts to inveigle North Korea into banning the bomb also hit trouble after the US insisted on an inspection regime so intrusive that, according to a New York Times editorial, "only a state vanquished in war" would accept it.

With North Korea threatening to restart its reactor at Yongbyon, US envoy Chris Hill was in Pyongyang yesterday trying to head off collapse. While the state department insists the proposed inspection regime is not especially onerous, the suggestion in Washington is that the vice-president, Dick Cheney, would prefer negotiations to fail rather than accept a "bad" deal.

Looked at from other perspectives, Bush's legacy on proliferation appears unimpressive, even frightening. US pressure on the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group to bend its rules to facilitate the India deal reportedly verged on outright bullying, leaving that proliferation control body divided and weakened. Bush has meanwhile cancelled a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia in response to Moscow's invasion of Georgia in August.

The US president will leave office amid unassuaged worries about Syria's intentions following the bombing by Israel of an alleged secret nuclear plant there. Notwithstanding Libya's welcome abandonment of its nuclear ambitions, nuclear programmes could yet mushroom across an Arab world increasingly nervous about Iran. On top of all that, Israel's nuclear arsenal remains uninspected and undeclared.

Like India, Israel, sees itself as a deserving exception to the rules. The question now is: how much longer can the rules hold?

Simon Tisdall