The Impact of U.S.-India Cooperation on Iran

November 30, 2005

Publication Type: 

  • Roundtables

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

Related Country: 

  • India


John Larrabee
William Lowell
Richard Speier
Sharon Squassoni
Leonard Weiss

Moderated by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control



In July 2005, the Bush administration announced an agreement for full civil nuclear cooperation with India, which would have the effect of recognizing India as a de facto nuclear weapon state. The deal, which would also include sharing U.S. space technology with India, is perceived by some as harmful to the battle against the proliferation of mass destruction weapons and long-range missiles. Critics of the deal see it as rewarding a country that developed nuclear weapons secretly by using its civilian energy program as a cover. They worry that the world's ongoing effort to prevent Iran from doing the same will suffer as a result. The timing of the agreement-which comes as the U.N. Security Council prepares to act on Iran's nuclear violations-naturally raises questions about consequences for Iran.

To judge the impact of the U.S.-India agreement on Iran, the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control hosted a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C. on November 30, 2005. Five panelists took up the following questions:

  • Could U.S. cooperation with India, a state that has rejected the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), undermine efforts to restrain Iran's nuclear program through diplomacy? Could it influence the way Iran perceives the West's commitment to enforcing nonproliferation rules?
  • Will U.S. efforts to exempt India from international export controls weaken those controls?
  • If so, will Iran have an easier time procuring what it needs to make mass destruction weapons?
  • Could the U.S.-India deal be altered so as to mitigate damage to the world's nonproliferation efforts?

The panelists judged that U.S. willingness to change longstanding policy in order to allow nuclear and space cooperation with India weakens nonproliferation norms and export controls at a critical time-as the world attempts to reinforce both vis-a-vis Iran. Such a change in policy is likely to make it easier for Iran to resist international pressure to limit its nuclear effort, and easier for it to import what it needs to improve both its missile and nuclear programs. The risk is high that bending international rules in order to make an exception for India will prompt other countries to seek their own exceptions for countries like Iran. In order to avoid these negative consequences, the panelists judged that the United States should shelve the India deal, at least for now. The panelists also found that there are many ways in which the United States can deepen its relationship with India without sharing sensitive nuclear and space technology.

The five panelists were chosen on the basis of their long experience with export controls and nonproliferation policy. They are John Larrabee, who led missile inspections in Iraq and is a specialist on ballistic missile technology, William Lowell, former director of the U.S. State Department's Office of Defense Trade Controls, who currently works on nonproliferation and export controls for the House International Relations Committee, Richard Speier, an expert in missile technology controls who served more than 20 years in the U.S. government, Sharon Squassoni, a specialist in national defense at the Congressional Research Service, who worked previously as an expert in nuclear proliferation at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and Leonard Weiss, former Democratic staff director of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, who was the principal architect of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978.

The following findings are the moderators' summary of the discussion. The findings are a composite of the panelists' individual views; no finding should be attributed to any single panelist, or be seen as an official statement of policy of any government.


The U.S.-India deal makes it more difficult to restrain Iran through diplomacy: it weakens the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, strengthens the hand of those in Iran who support nuclear weapons, and hurts U.S. efforts to punish Iran for its nuclear transgressions.

The panelists found that by granting India "full nuclear cooperation," the United States will undermine the basic bargain offered to non-weapon states by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: only states that sign the Treaty, agree to forgo nuclear weapons and accept international inspection receive nuclear assistance. Under the India deal, however, the United States will be treating a country outside the NPT-India-as if it had joined the Treaty. India has developed nuclear weapons secretly and is one of only three states, along with Israel and Pakistan, never to have signed the NPT. Despite this rejectionist posture, India will be allowed to maintain, and even to expand its nuclear arsenal, while receiving nuclear cooperation, lucrative trade deals and military assistance from the United States.

The lesson will not be lost on Iran. Indeed, India is a natural model for Iran. Both are large, culturally significant countries with resources important to the world; both have felt ostracized by the international community; both see themselves as victims of political discrimination; and both have major geostrategic rivals. For these reasons, Iran can look to India as a model for its own behavior.

If the India deal goes through, that model will teach an unfortunate lesson. It is that the United States will eventually tire of punishment and seek engagement, even with a determined proliferator. Once a country succeeds in getting the bomb, the United States will give up on diplomatic isolation and sanctions and instead pursue its interest in trade. This preference for trade over punishment is precisely the preference that Russia and China are showing with respect to Iran, and the preference the United States is trying to get these countries to change. The U.S. posture on India makes this task more difficult.

The U.S.-India deal also bolsters hardliners in Iran who favor nuclear weapons. This group believes that such weapons are in the country's interest, and that developing them would have only limited, short-term penalties. They can argue that the India deal proves them right.

The deal will also stir Iranian nationalism. In rewarding one proliferant country (India) while seeking to punish another (Iran), the United States is reinforcing the conviction in Iran that the United States is seeking to punish the Iranian regime selectively, and not simply trying to enforce global nonproliferation rules. This claim of being the victim of discrimination increases popular support for the expansion of Iran's civilian nuclear program, if not for nuclear weapons.

The timing of the deal's announcement, in July 2005, has further increased its negative impact. The announcement came just as debate was escalating in the IAEA over referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council. With the United States blessing India's nuclear conduct, other countries are less inclined to view Iran's behavior as grounds for punishment. In particular, countries in the non-aligned movement, already sympathetic to Iran's call not to be discriminated against, will be more willing to support Iran's claim that it has a right to produce its own nuclear fuel.

The loosening of U.S. export controls toward India also comes as the United States is asking the rest of the world to strengthen its own controls in order to combat proliferation. Giving India a free pass for proliferation is bound to dilute the impact of U.N. Security Council resolution 1540, which requires states to enact and enforce effective export control laws. It could also weaken the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, aimed at interdicting shipments of mass destruction weapon technology. With the United States busily trading with India, a country that has declined to join the Initiative, other countries will be less likely to cooperate in thwarting Iran's nuclear and missile procurement.


The U.S.-India deal will weaken international restraints on the sale of sensitive technology to countries like Iran.

The panelists found that U.S.-India nuclear and space cooperation will undermine the relevant nonproliferation regimes-at a time when strong regimes are needed to slow Iran's nuclear and missile progress. Countries that participate in these regimes are likely to follow the U.S. example and loosen their own export controls.

The primary international restraint on Iran's missile effort has been-and still is-the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The regime is a voluntary pact among supplier countries to restrict the sale of missiles, their components, and the equipment needed to make them. Similarly, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is a pact in which supplier countries agree to control nuclear exports-an arrangement that has helped prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear technology. Unfortunately, the U.S.-India deal may weaken both of these regimes.

A cardinal principle of both the MTCR and the NSG is that they are non-discriminatory, or "country neutral." The MTCR uses objective criteria to target "projects of concern," rather than specific countries. The NSG requires all countries importing items that it designates "especially designed or prepared for nuclear use" to accept comprehensive inspections. Under such inspections, all critical nuclear material must be accounted for. In this way, the regimes have avoided making politically-motivated decisions. However, in seeking a specific NSG exception for India, which has not accepted such comprehensive inspections, and in selectively lifting trade restrictions on Indian entities involved in missile work, the United States is overturning this principle. The United States will be easing restraints for a "friend," and doing so only for subjective, political reasons. If the United States is willing to put aside the rules for its friend, countries that supply Iran will want a similar exception. The India deal will thus function as a template for carving out exceptions within multilateral regimes that have long sought to operate beyond the political agendas of member countries.

International regimes also rely on coordination and consensus for effective operation. The United States, however, acted unilaterally in making its deal with India. There was no reported notification or coordination with members of the MTCR or the NSG before the deal was concluded. This affront will be made more grievous if the United States goes forward with the India deal without NSG approval. By violating the consensus norm of these regimes, the United States will invite other supplier countries to act unilaterally as well, and to make deals with Iran without first consulting the United States or other regime members.

Another strength of the regimes has been enforcement. Countries that belong to the regimes go to considerable lengths to investigate and shut down unauthorized exports by their own companies. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has been asking many countries to do even more. After the U.S.-India deal, however, regime members are going to question whether they should continue to expend their resources to thwart illicit exports to Iran if those exports cannot be distinguished from licit exports to India. The same kind of technology will be going to the same kind of projects. In light of Iran's able use of illicit supplier networks to fuel nuclear and missile efforts, this possibility is particularly worrisome.

Regime cohesion could erode quickly. The panelists observed that the United States has always set the standard for nonproliferation rules. Although it has usually taken a long time for countries to follow the United States when it has strengthened these rules, it has taken only an instant to follow any loosening of them. Russia, France and Britain, for example, have already expressed interest in nuclear cooperation with India. In a political climate where rules are being loosened for a proliferant country like India, the easing of exports to other proliferators such as Iran is likely to follow.

Finally, the U.S.-India deal ignores the lesson of India's 1974 "peaceful" nuclear explosion: that nuclear technology transferred for peaceful purposes can easily be used for weapons in the absence of comprehensive inspections. Ironically, the United States has long championed the necessity of such inspections. By allowing India to separate its civilian and military facilities, with only the former submitting to inspection, the deal gives credence to the false notion that partial inspections are sufficient to prevent proliferation.

The panelists believe that such a separation, whether in India or elsewhere, is essentially meaningless, because infrastructure, materials and expertise used in peaceful nuclear and space work can also help make warheads and missiles. History teaches that it will be impossible to verify that U.S. nuclear and space technology will not be used in India's nuclear weapon or missile programs. The availability of new fuel imports for India's civil nuclear sector, for example, could allow India to turn more of its indigenous productive capacity to making fuel for bombs-an outcome that is particularly troubling in the absence of any Indian commitment to stop producing such fuel. In fact, it will be easier to detect a diversion of nuclear material in Iran than in India, for the simple reason that all of Iran's nuclear material is subject to inspection, while only some of India's will be. Countries wishing to sell to Iran may cite this difference in defense of their sales.


The weakening of export controls will make it easier for Iran to acquire the means to make mass destruction weapons, particularly missiles.

In July, President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to cooperate in "space exploration," including "satellite navigation and launch." This language, unfortunately, is broad enough to allow missile-useable components and related technical assistance to be exported to India under the label of space cooperation. The United States, in fact, appears ready to authorize such sales. The U.S. Commerce Department recently dropped legal restraints on American exports of missile-useable equipment to three subsidiaries of the Indian Space Research Organization, despite the fact that all three are active in Indian missile development. This appears to be only the first step in a general loosening of U.S. missile controls for India.

Once American firms begin to sell such items to India, eager companies in Russia, China and Europe may consider that it is safe to sell the same things to Iran. Iran recently announced plans to expand its infant satellite and space programs, both of which will need imports. Those imports, by their nature, may be useful for making missiles.

Iran is now trying to boost the range and refine the accuracy of its Shahab-3 missile, which flies approximately 1,300 km and is big enough to carry a nuclear warhead. To do so, Iran needs high-technology materials such as carbon composites and specialty steels, as well as high-performance machine tools for component manufacture. Iran's missile effort would also benefit from help with rocket guidance, weight efficient engineering, radiation hardening, ruggedizing, tracking and telemetry, and thrust vectoring and flight simulation software. All of these items, and the technical know-how that goes with them, can be obtained under the guise of space exploration and all of them will be easier for Iran to acquire in the wake of the U.S.-India deal. Iran could also use its increased access to satellite technology to improve its response to Israeli and U.S. missile defenses.

Once space cooperation begins, and aerospace suppliers enter a country, there is a natural tendency to make expensive satellite and space projects succeed, even if that means supplying information, advice, or assistance officially banned from the original deal. It is difficult to erect a wall between the civilian and military benefits of a single export project. And it is difficult to separate civilian from military facilities. For example, India can use the same sites, equipment and personnel to track both satellite and ballistic missile launches. India, ironically, was the first country to develop a ballistic missile from a civilian space-launch program. The Agni missile tested in 1989 was adapted from U.S. and German space launch technology. It will not be possible for the United States to help India improve its space launch vehicles without helping it improve its missiles. The same will be true when other countries help Iran.

The scope of space cooperation being discussed for India is particularly worrisome given the history of U.S.-China space cooperation in the 1990s. The panelists note that China was able to obtain crucial technical assistance and data from the United States under the rubric of satellite launch cooperation, which helped China resolve problems of missile design, guidance, launch operations and payload integration. Meanwhile, Chinese companies have freely helped Iran's missile effort-and the United States has sanctioned them repeatedly for doing so.

The India deal will also make it more difficult to convince countries like Russia not to sell nuclear items to Iran. This will be especially true of dual-use equipment and of items imported for nuclear safety. Neither will be caught by an NSG export ban triggered by Iran's failure to comply with inspections. However, the panelists found it likely that such an export ban would prevent Iran from receiving other new nuclear assistance until it has answered the IAEA's outstanding questions.

It is also reasonable to worry that U.S. technology sent to India might ultimately make its way to Iran. Such technology, delivered today, may be impossible to control or recall in the future. Although India has enacted export control laws, implementation has been poor because of the lack of corresponding regulations. Though India recently passed a new law to implement U.N. Security Council resolution 1540, assertions that its national export control system is stringent-even after these reforms-are dubious. In September 2004, two Indian nuclear scientists, both former senior officials of the Indian government's Nuclear Power Corporation, were caught helping Iran and sanctioned by the U.S. government under the Iran Nonproliferation Act. And as recently as December 30, 2005, the United States sanctioned two Indian chemical firms for dangerous transfers to Iran.

Iran and India continue to have friendly relations. In 2003 they signed a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation. India is also proceeding with a $7 billion gas pipeline project with Iran-despite strong U.S. objections-which will give Iran hard currency that could help fuel its nuclear and missile programs. And although India voted in favor of the February 2006 IAEA resolution reporting Iran to the U.N. Security Council, India publicly supports Iran's claim that it has a right to conduct peaceful nuclear work.


The proposal in its current form should not be pursued. There are ways for the United States to deepen relations with India that do not have negative consequences for proliferation to Iran.

Although the India deal could be improved, the panelists judged that it is not in the United States' best interest to pursue it. The deal could be improved if India agreed to stop producing fuel for nuclear weapons, agreed to a stronger nuclear test moratorium, agreed to place all its civilian nuclear plants under inspection, and agreed to strengthen its enforcement of export controls. But such changes would only reduce rather than eliminate the damage to global nonproliferation efforts. India would still be exempt from rules that NPT members like Iran are being asked to obey.

The panelists see no reason to provide India with nuclear technology for the production of electricity, when it would be more economical and safer to help India generate electricity in other ways. Helping India build nuclear reactors only reinforces the perceived prestige of nuclear technology for developing countries-a point of view that the world is currently trying to persuade Iran to abandon.

The panelists also believe that there are better ways than the proposed deal to support India's space effort-ways that would not boost its missile work. For instance, the United States could offer to launch Indian astronauts and satellites and to share satellite observation data with Indian analysts. It is both unnecessary and dangerous to provide India with technology that can be converted to missilery.

At a minimum, the United States should not pursue the deal with India at the present time, just as the U.N. Security Council prepares to debate Iran's nuclear violations. If the deal moves forward now, it will undermine the credibility of the U.S. position on Iran. The deal is often cited by Iran and by those sympathetic to Iran's position when arguing that the United States cares less about proliferation than about using proliferation rules to support its friends and punish its adversaries. Shelving the deal would send a message to Iran, and to the world, that this is not so.