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Last summer the United States and India agreed to an historic deal, one that was designed to transform their relationship. The core of the agreement was a reassessment of India’s nuclear program. The U.S. sought to end India’s pariah status and to normalize Delhi’s relations with the global proliferation order.

Supporters argued it acknowledged reality and India’s exemplary efforts to guard against nuclear proliferation; critics counter that it undermined nonproliferation and encouraged other countries to copy India. Last week the two countries continued their efforts to implement that agreement. It is unclear whether the surrender of nonproliferation principles to nuclear reality will prove as beneficial as Washington and Delhi claim.

India has been a persistent objector to the global nuclear nonproliferation order. It refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), complaining that the treaty institutionalizes nuclear apartheid between nuclear “haves” and “have nots.” Determined to claim its rightful place on the international stage and convinced of the utility of such weapons, India developed its own nuclear arsenal. Delhi detonated a “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974 and exploded a nuclear bomb in 1998.

Indian insecurities — in addition to a status symbol, Delhi saw nuclear weapons as an equalizer in its contentious relations with China — were mirrored in Pakistan, which saw Indian’s determination to acquire a nuclear arsenal as demanding a similar response of its own. Thus Islamabad embarked on its own program to build a bomb and exploded its own weapons days after India’s own 1998 tests. The two countries’ efforts rendered them pariahs in the eyes of the nonproliferation community and sharply limited the degree to which other countries could engage them on security and energy issues.

There has been frustration in certain parts of Washington about the restraints this imposed on U.S. relations with India. Critics argued that, as the world’s largest democracy, India was a natural ally of the U.S. Not coincidentally, many also viewed India, once integrated into the international community, as a strategic counterweight to China within Asia, even if Delhi refused to join a containment policy.

Equally vocal has been the community of nonproliferation experts — in the U.S. and elsewhere, especially Japan — that maintained that normalizing relations with Delhi would encourage other nations to thumb their nose at the NPT. Making a deal at this moment is especially poorly timed given the state of negotiations with North Korea and Iran on getting them to abandon their nuclear ambitions. This agreement effectively makes it harder — if not impossible — to make a deal with them.

The pragmatists have prevailed, arguing that India’s exemplary behavior when it came to nonproliferation was more important than formal compliance with the NPT.

For the past eight months, U.S. and Indian negotiators have endeavored to close a deal before President George W. Bush’s visit to India last week. They succeeded. The deal they reached designates 14 of India’s 22 nuclear reactors as civilian and thus subject to international inspections (the rest are military and exempt from inspections). All future reactors are to be civilian. Critics charge that this allows India to produce unfettered weapons-grade fissile material. The deal, however, increases the number of facilities under international supervision from six to 14; that seems like a net plus.

India will also get access to civilian nuclear technology, much needed to power its growing economy. The U.S. has said it will lobby on India’s behalf in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a consortium of nations with technologies whose sale has been forbidden to India. That promises to be a boost to domestic nuclear-energy producers around the world eager to do business in India, which hopes to expand the nuclear contribution of total energy consumed from 3 percent to 25 percent by 2050. And it reduces international demand for oil.

The deal is by no means done. The U.S. Congress must amend laws that prohibit sales of nuclear supplies to countries that do not agree to international standards. Similarly, the NSG members may reject U.S. lobbying. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must also sell his country on accepting limits on a program that is a great source of national pride.

On a practical level, the deal makes sense. After all, it is compliance with international standards, not membership in formal institutions, that is more important. India’s record is strong in this regard. The political and business benefits are equally compelling. But the world will not know for some time the “demonstration effects” of this agreement. If it creates additional incentives for other governments to contemplate acquisition of their own nuclear arsenals, then those benefits will prove illusory. And nuclear pragmatism will prove to be no bargain at all.

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