All but lost in the controversies surrounding Iraq and Iran is a major initiative involving a third "I" country: India. Sometime this year, the US Congress is likely to vote on the "US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative," signed when US President George W. Bush visited New Delhi in March.
The agreement paves the way for US exports of nuclear technologies and materials for use in India' s civilian nuclear program. In return, India has pledged to open 14 of its 22 existing and planned nuclear power reactors, as well as all future civil reactors, to international inspection.
The agreement matters for at least two reasons.
First, the accord symbolizes the arrival of a new geopolitical relationship between the world's two largest democracies that were often on opposite sides during the Cold War. This development may be of historic importance if it not only leads to a deepening of US-Indian technical and economic ties, but also strengthens their ability to tackle regional and global challenges, ranging from the proliferation of nuclear weapons to climate change.
But the proposed US-India accord is attracting notice for a second, and far more controversial, reason: concern that it could weaken, rather than advance, efforts to resist the further worldwide spread of nuclear weapons.
Critics charge that the agreement undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by letting India have its cake (nuclear weapons) and eat it, too (by giving it access to nuclear fuel and technology). They allege that the agreement creates a double standard, according to which only some countries may possess nuclear weapons.
To be fair, the critics are right, at least in part. There is a double standard at work. But there is nothing new about that. The treaty, some four decades old, is based on a double standard that gives only five countries -- China, France, Russia, the UK and the US -- the right (for how long is not defined) to possess nuclear weapons.
Moreover, the world seems to have learned to tolerate the reality that three other countries -- Israel, India and Pakistan -- also possess nuclear weapons. Where the critics of the proposed US-India accord are wrong is in charging that such a double standard is wrong when it comes to India because it opens the way for countries such as North Korea and Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
Not all countries are equal. India is a democracy. Transparency and the rule of law are the norm, and its government does all it can to fight terrorism. There is no reason to believe that India will promote the spread of nuclear fuel, technology, or weapons to any other party or country; on the contrary, it is committed to preventing this.
This is not true of either North Korea or Iran. The former is arguably the most closed, tyrannical and militarized society in the world, with a long record of irresponsible exports of dangerous technologies. Iran offers official support to terrorists and its president has threatened publicly to destroy Israel. The world has good reason to be far less tolerant of what North Korea or Iran do in the realm of nuclear weapons and to reject their calls for equal treatment with India.
Indeed, if there is a danger in the proposed US-India accord, it is the possibility that either North Korea or Iran might conclude that it is only a matter of time before the world comes to accept their nuclear status. Here the US and others must disabuse them.