Behind the heightened tension with Iran lies a wider problem that world leaders must swiftly and substantively grasp. The Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), drawn up in 1968, needs to be re-written to make it both workable and acceptable to nations who view it as outdated and unfair.
Over the next generation, as the scramble for energy gathers pace, many more governments will announce plans to build uranium-enrichment facilities. Some will be friendly to US interests, some hostile. Some may switch alliances with time.
In recent years, India and the deeply unstable Pakistan have both declared their nuclear-weapons programs. Neither was a signatory to the NPT. North Korea joined, but left. Iran is a member, but stands accused of breaking the rules. Israel is not, and remains secretive and undeclared. Iraq signed back in 1969, then totally ignored it.
So, if the present version of the NPT is proving too hit and miss to survive the next half century of nuclear aspirations, what will replace it?
Into this conundrum comes an agreement between India and the US that, if used properly, could show us the way ahead. After more than 30 years of sanctions because of its nuclear program, India is now being allowed into that select club of declared and accepted nuclear powers.
On the technical side, India will be able to sell and buy civilian-use nuclear products on the international market. On the political side, the agreement heals a wound between two huge democracies by giving India some recognition of national dignity – which is, in part, also what Iran is seeking.
Thirty-seven years ago, when Iran was an ally of the US, American warships were confronting not an autocratic Islamic state in the Gulf, but a young socialist democracy in the Bay of Bengal. India, then viewed by Washington as over-friendly with the Soviet Union, was defeating Pakistan over Bangladesh and needed to be brought into line.
The hostile insertion in 1971 of the USS Enterprise carrier group into India’s backyard failed to turn the tide in Pakistan’s favor. But it did create an anti-American sentiment in India that is only healing today.
It also gave India added grit to develop its own nuclear weapons. In 1974, having bought technology under the guise of using it solely for peaceful purposes, India carried out a nuclear test and was put under sanctions.
India’s Tarapur nuclear complex, three hours drive outside of Mumbai, tells what has happened in the interim. Tarapur comprises a weapons-research center; a Soviet-style closed-city with schools, shops and sporting facilities for the scientists, engineers and their families; and four reactors, two designed in the 1960s and two this century.
The first two, known as Taps 1 & 2, were opened in 1969 and built by the American multinational General Electric (GE) in a turn-key operation that included parts, maintenance, training and uranium-fuel supply. Four years later, after the test, the US government instructed GE to withdraw all support.
Far from being deterred, India pushed its nuclear program with even more urgency. It fuelled the reactors by buying uranium first from France, then Russia and, according to some engineers at Tarapur, even briefly from China.
India bypassed sanctions and created a world-class nuclear program. The control room of Taps 1 & 2 looks like an immaculately preserved example of 1960s technology, while the ultra-modern Taps 3 & 4 that opened in 2005 are evidence of what a determined nation can do if it decides to go it alone.
Visitors wear anti-dust cotton coverings over their shoes, and once inside they watch screens monitoring movements deep inside the radioactive area of the plant. Even under its new agreement, this will remain a place closed to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
At present, India has 17 reactors with five under construction. Of those, 14 will be "safeguarded," or open to IAEA inspections. Eight will remain closed so they can be used for weapons and other research.
With its billion-plus population and booming economy, India’s plan for the next 20 years reflects much of the developing world’s appetite for secure energy. To meet its galloping demand for power India expects to buy 25 more reactors from Russia, the US and France, as well as build several itself.
That alone is about 5 percent of the more than 400 power-generating reactors in the world today and evidence of boom years ahead, not only for India, but also for the whole global nuclear industry.
The climate-change debate coupled with unpredictable access to fossil fuels has prompted the nuclear industry to brush off the Chernobyl stigma and declare itself safe, inexpensive and carbon-free. America’s GE, for example, is gearing up to supply the Tarapur complex again, as well as bidding for involvement in India’s new reactors.
Of course, it is not just India. A walk through General Electric’s massive warehouse at its fuel plant in Wilmington, North Carolina, shows the momentum sweeping the nuclear industry along. Reinforced metal boxes containing uranium fuel rods are stacked as if in a supermarket waiting to be shipped out to clients.
"This one’s going to Japan, this to Mexico, this to within the US," says Andrew White, president and CEO of GE’s nuclear business, "Over the next 20 years we hope to be involved in 60 or 70 new plants depending on the technology."
China’s nuclear plans mirror those of India, and nuclear energy is due to dramatically increase in Europe, where it makes up 30 percent of power, and America, where it comprises 20 percent. Developing nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America are all looking to create their own nuclear programs to provide energy – and there lies the problem.
Egypt, for example, currently a champion of non-proliferation, has two research reactors aimed at creating an independent nuclear-fuel cycle. It could prove to be a matter of Western concern. Like Iran before, the Egyptian regime risks falling to extreme Islamic anti-American forces.
Both Brazil and Argentina once pursued covert-weapons programs. Some years from now, the increasingly left-leaning Latin America might produce a hostile leader, who would expel IAEA inspectors and send us once again into frighteningly familiar territory.
It is doubtful that global diplomacy can survive scenarios whereby every time a government is accused of stepping out of line, the UN Security Council is called upon to implement sanctions and US carrier groups steam toward hostile coastlines.
More than any other nation, India has the credentials to immerse itself completely in this dangerous conundrum and put forward fresh guidelines to extract us from it. India has persistently condemned the NPT for being discriminatory, arguing that the nuclear-armed UN permanent five cannot forever dictate what other nations do. This view is shared throughout much of the developing world, and as that sentiment grows, it will be more and more difficult to keep a lid on it.
A solution may be many years away, and getting there will be difficult. It will have to include both technical elements, such as guarantees of fuel supplies, and political ones involving perceptions of national dignity and fairness.
India’s elevation to nuclear acceptability comes with a price. It cannot simply accept its new privileges and stay quiet. India went against all odds to create its nuclear program. It must now take up a new challenge to create a nuclear roadmap for the next century.
The writer, a BBC correspondent and Asia specialist, is an author, most recently of The History Book. Rights: © 2007 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online