India enjoys special status to import nuclear technology despite its refusal to sign a key treaty limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. But it feels its favored position suddenly threatened after 46 supplier nations agreed to tighten rules on equipment sales that could be used to make such arms.
Irritation has built up in India over revised rules agreed on last month by the U.S., Russia, France and other major suppliers banning the sales of key technology and equipment that has civilian applications but also can be used to arm nuclear weapons.
The agreement does not limit India's access to modern U.S. or other foreign-made reactors that are difficult to use for making fissile warhead material. The move, however, does appear to slam the door on any future attempts by New Delhi to expand its secretive nuclear arms program through foreign purchases of weapons-making technologies.
India already can reprocess material from its fast-breeder reactor program to arm its nuclear missiles. So for New Delhi, the issue may be more a sense of injured pride at being rebuffed in strivings to stand shoulder to shoulder with the five "recognized" nuclear powers _ the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France.
In any case, the Asian giant is unhappy at what it sees an anti-Indian move backed by Washington and other suppliers _ and is hinting that it may retaliate by cutting them out of any multibillion dollar reactor deals
"A betrayal," is how Anil Kakodar, the former chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission, described the new rules.
Washington does appear to be saying that the new restrictions permanently block transfers of enrichment and reprocessing equipment or know-how to all nations outside the 46-member Nuclear Suppliers Group _ and that would include India.
"The new NSG guidelines don't put the India exception in doubt," a senior U.S. official told the AP. But the official, who asked for anonymity for commenting on the sensitive topic, said they "reinforce the commitment of NSG members to prevent the transfer of items that could be used for weapons purposes."
To access NSG equipment, all countries except the five formally recognized nuclear-armed powers normally must accept safeguards of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency meant to ensure that their atomic programs are peaceful.
India is the sole exception. A nuclear power since 1974, India was granted special status three years ago after agreeing to allow IAEA safeguards to apply to much _ but not all _ of its civilian nuclear program and other concessions, including a voluntary, unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing and a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. But its weapons program remains secretive.
The new NSG agreement effectively cuts off all countries from technology that may help them develop or advance a nuclear weapons program unless purchasing nations are considered to be zero proliferation risks. Despite its special status _ and the concessions it made to get there _ India does not fit that bill.
If India makes good on veiled threats to retaliate by boycotting U.S. suppliers, the potential losses are huge. The U.S. nuclear industry could stand to lose billions of dollars in projected reactor sales as the country plans to quadruple its present 5,000 megawatts of nuclear power to 20,000 megawatts by 2020 _ a project that could cost it as much as $250 billion (euro173 billion.)
But international worries about nuclear proliferation _ prompted in part by North Korea's evolving weapons programs and fears that Iran may be on the same path _ appear to have overridden commercial concerns.
The Indian exception has long been a sore point with rival Pakistan, which is shut out by the suppliers' club and which exploded its first nuclear bomb in 1998 in what officials said was a response to the threat from New Delhi's nuclear arms. Israel, which is commonly thought to have nuclear weapons, also cannot trade with the group.
A copy of the four-page confidential guidelines agreed upon at a closed-door meeting in the Dutch town of Noordwijk and made available to The Associated Press advises members to "not authorize the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing facilities and equipment and technology" unless the recipient meets criteria meant to reduce any proliferation threat.
Chief among these is membership in the Nonproliferation Treaty _ something India does not have.
The new rules also bar exports of sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technologies to states that do not have comprehensive IAEA safeguards and do not allow tougher monitoring under the terms of the IAEA additional protocol.
Publicly, New Delhi's reaction has been low-key. Officials say their first goal is to await publication of the deal reached by the Nuclear Supplier's Group, which was formed to cut off sales to potential proliferators in response to India's first nuclear bomb test in 1974.
"I'm not saying these developments are welcome ... (but) we have to study these guidelines," Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao told national television early this week.
But the NSG's decision is clearly striking a raw nerve on the subcontinent.
In a hint of possible retaliation, the influential daily Hindu warns that if supplier nations "cherry-pick which of their own commitments they will adhere to and which they will not, India may well be tempted to examine its own options."
Rao, the foreign secretary, also suggested that her country was ready to exert pressure to ensure its nuclear interests are met.
"We will defend our interests to the hilt," she said when asked if India would not buy reactors from any country that refuses to sell enrichment and reprocessing technology.
India was not sold enrichment and reprocessing equipment even under the old NSG rules, which strongly discouraged such transfers to non-signatories of the Nonproliferation Treaty because they can be used to make fissile warhead material as well as nuclear fuel.
But the new revision goes further by effectively banning nonmembers from receiving such technology.
As key potential providers to India of nuclear reactors, the U.S., France, and Russia would stand to lose most from any retaliation by New Delhi. In the wake of the revised guidelines, all three have said that they back India's access to peaceful nuclear technology as stipulated by the 2008 NSG exemption _ while leaving the Indians guessing on whether that includes enrichment and reprocessing goods and services.
Advocacy groups that considered the 2008 trade exemption granted to India a blow against nonproliferation efforts, hail the new NSG pact.
Daryl G. Kimball, who heads the Washington-based Arms Control Association calls it "an important, if overdue, decision to tighten its rules on the transfer of equipment and technology that can be used to make fissile material for nuclear weapons."
The new NSG guidelines, "ensure that sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technologies will not be transferred to India and used in its unsafeguarded military program," says Kimball, whose organization shared a copy of the restricted text with the AP.
George Jahn is reachable at http://twitter.com/georgejahn.
Associated Press writer Nirmala George in New Delhi contributed to this report.