The Downside to the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal

When Congress finally approved the U.S.-India nuclear deal this month, it sailed through the body with scarcely a peep. Most analysts in Washington and New Delhi hailed the move. But some observers worry the United States has just helped spark a new arms race.

The agreement admits India into one of the world's most exclusive clubs: states that openly hold nuclear weapons. Proponents say it will boost cooperation between two of the world's largest democracies, allow U.S. business to cash in on the lucrative Indian nuclear-energy market and bring New Delhi into the fight against proliferation. But there's a hitch. India has spurned the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), under which states promise never to build bombs in exchange for access to civilian technology. "By recognizing India's nuclear status anyway, Washington has undermined the treaty at a moment when it is confronting nuclear crises in North Korea and Iran," says Peter Scoblic, author of "U.S. vs. Them," a history of American nuclear strategy. "And for what? To curry favor with a country that is already a friend of the United States."

Some now fear the reaction of Pakistan and Israel, the two other nuclear powers that aren't part of the NPT regime. Pakistan says it has behaved no differently than India and deserves the same perks. Though Pakistan's proliferation record has been worse, both countries tested nuclear devices. (In India's case, it resulted in decades of sanctions and nuclear isolation.)

There are signs an arms race has already started. In 2007, Pakistan's president declared his state would increase its deterrent capacity to match India's offensive capacity. It also opened a new reactor to manufacture weapons-grade plutonium and threatened to penetrate any Indian missile-defense shield.

Israel, meanwhile, has a better arms-control record than India and would love to open a civilian nuclear program. So after the Washington-Delhi agreement, it petitioned the international nuclear suppliers' group to ask if it could get similar terms. No, it was told. But Avner Cohen, the author of "Israel and the Bomb," speculates that Israel might someday be compensated—perhaps with a civilian program or recognition of its own weapons program—for good behavior like not attacking Iran.

How did a pact with so many potential consequences make it so far? "The French want to sell nuclear power plants. The Russians want to sell nuclear power plants. Canada wants to sell uranium," says Zia Mian, a nuclear researcher at Princeton. As Marx said, follow the money.