Sunday, March 19, 2006

Air Power

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Air Power

Just keep your windows open in the capital of the world’s only superpower, and lots of bits and pieces tend to filter through. Here is something that might be of particular interest to those who have built the nuclear deal between Delhi and Washington on the basis of a separation of civilian and military assets.The key is the American "concession" to leave Indian military reactors outside the inspections regime.

The catch is that our civilian and military reactors are within the same complex. Two reactors at Tarapar, for instance, are civilian; the other two will probably not come under inspection. Two reactors in Rajasthan are already under safeguards, but four are not. And so on.

The inspectors, if they come, will not be permitted to enter the military facilities. That is the good news. The bad news is that they now rely heavily on environmental sampling techniques, and work with instruments that work over a radius of four kilometres. They can, and surely will, therefore be able to intrude into neighbouring reactors without actually entering them. Improvements in inspections technology are taking place all the time. There is a "beetle" being manufactured that is designed to curb nuclear proliferation, and can provide details of military significance. It is called a "beetle" because of its miniature size.

Since Pakistan has signed nothing, its facilities will not be under any Vienna or multilateral inspection. Pakistan too has civilian and military reactors, and has indicated that it will multiply its nuclear power generation capacity forty times by 2020. It would be naïve and even counterproductive to dismiss this as fancy or fantasy. Nuclear power is synonymous with national security and therefore nationalism, so Pakistan will find the resources and the technology to do so. A Pakistan-China nuclear deal to counter the India-US agreement is already evident, with this difference that Pakistan will not be under any international obligation to display any card in its hand.

Nicholas Burns, who negotiated the deal with Delhi on behalf of Washington, has gone on record to say that by 2015 up to 90% of Indian nuclear capacity will be under inspection (by which time even the "beetle" will probably be passé). Since the substantive part of our nuclear technology in the future is going to come from the United States, the US administration will have further knowledge of our programme through non-IAEA inspections. The US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has indicated that India will buy eight nuclear reactors from America at an estimated cost of $14.4 billion. According to one Indian expert this is more than we have spent on our entire nuclear programme so far.

On the plus side, this is the best technology we can get. Moreover, everyone knows that the assurance that has been demanded, and been obtained, that "civilian" technology will not be transferred to the military side is pure hogwash. Both Washington and Delhi know this to be bunk. While it may not be possible to transfer parts from one reactor to another, there is no way to prevent the transfer of a scientist who has learnt how to make the most sophisticated parts by working on the civilian side to the military side.

This self-evident fact also destroys a hypothesis being currently pushed in decision-making circles. It accepts that China’s response to the India deal will be aggressive technological assistance to Pakistan, but suggests that China might not be equally willing to weaponise Pakistan. I do not buy this argument, since China’s self-interest is best served by letting Pakistan engage India in an arms race. In any case, once Pakistan gets the technology it can do its own algebra. As noted before, it will not have to worry about nuclear inspectors in the process.

One happy consequence of the India-US deal, irrespective of shades and tints that may alter the picture, is that non-proliferation as a comprehensive international objective has been buried by President George Bush. They are calling this realism in Washington, and they are right. Thrusting a non-proliferation treaty down the world’s throat was the Second Last Passion of Bill Clinton (his Last Respectable Passion was the peace treaty between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat: both passions ended in failure). The world according to George Bush is tougher, meaner, leaner and divided between friends and enemies. Friends of a certain stature will be permitted entry into the nuclear club. America has accorded Israel this special status for a long while, and Britain actively helped Israel create a nuclear arsenal. India now joins this elite group.

But while Pakistan has been denied the pleasures of American technology, it has not been excluded from the nuclear club. There is no proposal in Washington to curb or eliminate Pakistan’s nuclear capability. Pakistan is not Iran, which is still waiting to get its cascading (a critical stage in the development of nuclear capability) right. Pakistan has at least fifty atomic weapons if not more, and will soon have the capacity to increase the annual production rate. The United States has for all practical purposes recognised both India and Pakistan as nuclear weapons states, and placed a restrictive regime only on its friend India, rather than its ally Pakistan. This might not seem the way it looks now, when trumpets are blaring in Delhi and Washington, but this is the way it will be when the fanfare dies down. The new nuclear policy is to accept proliferation from friends but come down hard on proliferation by enemies. Iran heads the second list.

On Thursday the White House released a 49-page National Security Strategy, the first since 2002, the gap year between 9/11 and the Iraq occupation, in which pre-emptive war became the official doctrine of the Bush administration. The focus this time is on Iran, and unambiguously. Bush described Iran, at a press conference in January, a "grave threat to the security of the world". The document informs us what he proposes to do about the threat if diplomacy becomes inadequate: "…under long-standing principles of self-defence, we do not rule out force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. When the consequences of an attack with WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction, of course) are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialise."

Washington is a city of power. Power has many manifestations. One of them is information. The word is out that there will be an air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities within six months. It will be a limited air offensive, if for no other reason than that America simply does not have the ground troops for another occupation. America might have to go it alone, without the support of its most loyal feudal spirit, Britain, as Britain seems to have lost its appetite for world supremacy. Loneliness will not deter Bush. He might also be tempted by the view that war is the only issue on which he still retains some standing with the American voter, and there are crucial elections scheduled for November which the Republicans will lose badly if nothing is done to change the environment. Bush’s popularity is at an all-time low. One reason why the nuclear deal might be affirmed with bipartisan support by Congress is because India’s credibility is at the moment significantly higher than that of Bush.

George Bush will need a friend when he attacks Iran, and will ask Delhi to reciprocate. That is why Iran is already so heavy in the rhetoric of India-US relations. And that is probably why, incidentally, Mani Shankar Aiyar lost his petroleum portfolio: the articulate, America-sceptic could not be trusted with anything more than panchayati raj and the Commonwealth Games (in neither of which Bush has shown any interest).

I could have written "if" Bush attacks Iran rather than "when". But the sound that wafts in through open windows in Washington has a definite ring to it.

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