Journalist | Writer | Analyst
21 March 2009
Obama picks India critic for top nonproliferation job
The appointment of Ellen O. Tauscher to the Obama administration’s top nonproliferation job places a big question mark over the future implementation of the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement.
As a Democratic Congresswoman from California, Ms Tauscher was one of the most prominent critics of the Bush administration’s push to open the doors of global nuclear commerce for India. Not only did she vote against the ‘123 agreement’ in the House last year but she also proposed amending the terms of the deal to make the cut-off of fissile material production by India a precondition when the Hyde Act was before Congress in 2006.
Asked for his reaction to the Tauscher appointment, a senior Indian official told The Hindu on condition of anonymity, “We work with what we get. Never write us off.” But others were less sanguine. “The non-pro people in the State Department were unhelpful but they were usually over-ruled in the Bush administration,” said another official.
“Let us see if the political people are the ones who call the shots now”.
After the Nuclear Suppliers Group waived its rules to allow trade with India last September, Ms. Tauscher called it a “dark day for global efforts to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction.” In a withering attack on the decision, she predicted that “this shortsighted step will ironically do very little for the American nuclear industry, as India will likely buy nuclear technology from Russia and other suppliers.”
In a statement on September 8, 2008, she said the deal made it harder to “curb the South Asian nuclear arms race” and undermined America’s efforts to deal with North Korea and Iran. “It’s a dangerous precedent that would be impossible to erase”, she added, vowing to try and block its passage through Congress. Earlier, in an op-ed with Mr. Markey, she described the Indian deal as a threat to international security.
And in a speech at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratories in 2007, she said the U.S. must expand its “nonproliferation programmes to secure loose nuclear material and extend them to countries of concern such as Pakistan and India.”
When she is confirmed as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Ms Tauscher will be Washington’s point person on all proliferation-related issues. She will play a key role in shaping the administration’s approach towards the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the proposed Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), the 2010 NPT Review Conference as well as evolving issues like restricting access to reprocessing and enrichment technology. These are all areas of crucial importance to policymakers in Delhi.
On the Indian front, her direct role would be limited to working the inter-agency process within the Beltway on the potentially thorny issue of finalising reprocessing arrangements and procedures for any reactors the U.S. sells to India. The Indian Department of Atomic Energy has made it clear it will not buy any American reactor until the reprocessing details are worked out to its satisfaction. And given the background of her opposition to the nuclear deal, Ms Tauscher is likely to push for terms that India may consider intrusive or undesirable.
Internationally, Ms Tauscher told the Munich Security Conference last month there were several steps that the Obama administration was likely to take on the arms control front. The FMCT was the most immediate priority she said, adding that the treaty was “not a ‘nice to have’ but a ‘have to have.’” The other priorities were penalising NPT signatories who withdrew from the treaty, ratifying the CTBT, entering into direct talks with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programmes, and restoring the ‘Spratt-Furse’ law in the U.S. banning the development of “mini-nukes.”
If the Indian strategic establishment is not entirely comfortable with the fast-tracking of FMCT talks, it is likely to derive some satisfaction from Ms Tauscher’s tough line on the disgraced Pakistani nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan. “It is long past due for our Pakistani friends to give us full access to A.Q. Khan so that the world may gain a complete understanding of the damage he caused,” she told the Munich conference.
In Ms Tauscher’s view, however, India’s record on proliferation is not much better. Speaking in Congress during the ‘123’ debate last September, she described India as a “country with a dismal record of non-proliferation” which had been “denied access to the market for three decades and for good reason.”
She also joined several legislators in stating that they would not allow President Bush’s signing statement on the 123 law to dilute the requirements of American law to suit India’s concerns.