Last-ditch nuclear talks between Iran and the European Union's big three did not go well yesterday, breaking up shortly after they began in Vienna. That was not surprising since there had been an impasse in negotiations for weeks now. But it was more than just an unfortunate coincidence that the session was held a day after George Bush, visiting New Delhi, struck a landmark deal allowing India to develop peaceful nuclear energy while staying outside the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), the world's most important legal barrier to the spread of nuclear weapons. This smacks of double standards that will make it hard to hold the line on this issue and gives some substance to the charge, voiced by an angry President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that opposition to Iran's nuclear ambitions - which he claims are peaceful - is politically motivated. Next week this potentially disastrous confrontation is likely to move to the UN security council.
India of course, is not Iran, and the US is not alone in wooing the world's largest democracy or in piling on the rhetoric about shared values. Outside the capital, Mr Bush spent most time in Hyderabad, the country's Silicon Valley, symbol of its increasingly close integration into the global economy and home to high-earning outsourced call centres and software exporters. Nor is India in the same league as neighbouring Pakistan. This US ally in the "war on terror" - which the president is visiting today following an ominous suicide bombing attack on the US consulate in Karachi - has also acquired nuclear weapons without ever signing the NPT. But Pakistan has a far worse record on proliferation and is suspected of selling known-how to Iran. The US is now treating India like its uniquely special ally Israel, also outside the NPT, which maintains a policy of deliberate ambiguity about its nuclear capacity and is believed to have 200 warheads.
Part of the rationale for the agreement is helping to reduce the dependence of India's booming economy on oil and thus cut greenhouse gas emissions. Another element is accepting a fait accompli which is likely to benefit a US nuclear industry that is keen to sell fuel and reactor components. The hard-fought terms means that 14 of India's 22 reactors will be placed under scrutiny; military ones will not. The military will also retain control of fast-breeder reactors, highly efficient producers of the plutonium needed for warheads - whose numbers could rise from an estimated 50 today to 300-400 in a decade. That is a stunning reversal after 30 years of efforts to deny India nuclear technology, including sanctions when it conducted a nuclear test in 1998.
The US has defended this volte-face in terms of realpolitik and shared values, while China (a "big five" nuclear power under the NPT) is clearly another key, common factor. In return, Washington has demanded Indian support for UN moves against Iran - causing problems from the Indian left and Muslims for prime minister Manmohan Singh. But above all else it is impossible to ignore the disastrous effect this deal is likely to have on global non-proliferation efforts. This is of a piece with other aspects of the US administration's cavalier approach to internationally agreed standards on legal issues or the environment. Mr Bush has been strongly criticised for failing to sell his policy and may face problems in Congress before the deal is approved.
India is a democracy, as is Israel; but both exist in violent and suspicious neighbourhoods. This agreement is about breaking the rules and expecting others to abide by them - or, as one critic put it nicely "preaching temperance from a barstool". It sends a message to Iran and North Korea that the US will only withhold nuclear technology from regimes it dislikes. Most Indians are delighted. But there may be some thoughtful smiles in Tehran and Pyongyang as the wider implications sink in.
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