Should India Join the NPT as a Nuclear Weapon State?

Added on by Alana Chloe Esposito.

The Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Based on the three pillars of nonproliferation, disarmament, and the right of peaceful use ofnuclear technology, the Treaty has become the cornerstone of the nonproliferation regime. The NPT entered into force in 1970 and has been ratified by 189 states, five of which it recognizes as nuclear weapon states (NWS): United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, and China. In the interest of international security, it prohibits any state that did not already possess nuclear weapons by 1968 from acquiring them. Yet, India, Israel, and Pakistan—who never signed the NPT—are known to have acquired nuclear weapons since 1968. Meanwhile, North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003 to pursue its weapons program and Iran, while in apparent compliance with NPT regulations, is widely believed to be pursuing a clandestine weapons program.

Of these outlier states, India presents a special case because it has voluntarily adhered to many of the NPT’s rules and has proven itself a responsible nuclear weapon state, though is not an NPT signatory. Driven by apprehension of a rising China and tension with Pakistan, India tested its first “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974, prompting the U.S. creation of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which aims to control nuclear technology exports. In 1998, India tested its first nuclear weapon, for which it received punishment from the U.S. in the form of sanctions. India has refused to sign the NPT on the grounds that it is biased in favor of the five recognized NWS, yet has a no-first use policy, follows a doctrine of credible minimal deterrence, and appears to share the NPT’s commitment to nonproliferation. In 2009, India began to hint for the first time that it was open to the possibility of joining the NPT, but under the condition that it do so as a NWS.

India’s change of position follows the 2008 enactment of the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation, an agreement granting India the right to buy American dual-use nuclear technology­—a privilege normally reserved for NPT parties. In exchange, India agrees to meet the following conditions: allow International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) inspectors to access its civilian nuclear program and sign an Additional Protocol granting the IAEA the right to conduct more intrusive inspections; continue its moratorium on testing nuclear weapons; enhance the security of its nuclear arsenals; and work toward negotiating a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty with the U.S. The deal, a dramatic departure from existing U.S. policy not to share nuclear technology with India in accordance with NPT provisions, solidified the strategic partnership between the U.S. and India, serving their mutual interest in countering China’s rise. However, it sparked controversy within United States policy circles because of such issues as the deal’s questionable legality.

Besides the U.S. and India, other major stakeholders in the decision over whether to allow India to accede to the NPT as a NWS include the key regional actors China, Pakistan, and Iran, as well as the four other recognized NWS, whose approval would be required to amend the Treaty. Considering India is already a nuclear-armed power, neither China nor Russia face additional strategic risks from allowing India to join the NPT as NWS. On the contrary, it could even improve their bilateral relations as India’s influence grows. France and the United Kingdom, having signed their own technology sharing deals with India following the U.S. example, are likely to support the decision if the U.S. endorses it.  As a state widely suspected of secretly building a nuclear weapons program in defiance of NPT regulations, Iran already presents a conundrum for the U.S., which India’s accession to the NPT risks exacerbating. Such a move potentially plays into Iranian hands, legitimizing their longstanding claims that the international regime is hypocritical and biased against Iran. At the very least, this could further galvanize domestic support for Iran’s nuclear program. Finally, the decision might have adverse consequences with respect to relations with Pakistan, as further described below.

Current U.S. Position

In November 2009 President Obama sponsored United Nations Security Council Resolution 1887 calling for stricter international controls on nuclear weapons proliferation, the universalization of the NPT, and adherence to its norms by non-parties. The resolution targeted Iran and North Korea, yet it also mounts pressure on India to accept placing all of its nuclear facilities under international safeguards (currently India only grants the IAEA access to its civil nuclear facilities).  Thus, the resolution is at odds with the U.S.’ tacit recognition of India as a democratic, responsible, nuclear power as implied by the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. Since reconciling these policies seems unfeasible, the U.S. must choose whether to openly advocate for India’s international recognition as a legitimate NWS or push India to abandon its weapons program in order to join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state (NNWS). This decision will likely determine the European and Japanese response to the India question as well.

Policy options

The United States has three major options concerning its policy toward India’s stated desire to accede to the NPT as a NWS. These options present the most viable paths for pursuing U.S. strategic goals, yet all three options risk jeopardizing certain U.S. interests.

Option 1: Endorse India’s move to join as NWS

Legal mechanisms exist to integrate non-signatory states into the NPT in a manner that recognizes their nuclear weapons. Under Article VII of the Treaty, an amendment conference can be called with the support of one-third of the NPT signatories. Politically, however, this would be difficult to carry out as amendments require ratification by national governments, which could be a slow and cumbersome process. Nonetheless, the United States could use its diplomatic influence to garner support for India’s accession and eventually propose an amendment conference.


Balancing idealism with pragmatism is the best way to further nonproliferation and disarmament. Indisputably, India possesses nuclear weapons. Despite having acquired these weapons illegally, India is widely accepted as a responsible member of the International Community and is currently seeking a greater role in global affairs (as evidenced by its desire to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council). Given the threats it perceives from China and Pakistan, it is inconceivable for India to follow South Africa, Brazil, Egypt, and Japan in abandoning its nuclear weapons program. Therefore, convincing India to join the NPT as a NNWS is an unrealistic goal. That leaves the United States with a choice between accepting the facts and letting India join under less-than-ideal conditions or leaving this strategically important partner out of the NPT framework all together. In negotiating the civil nuclear cooperation agreement, the U.S. already assessed that India’s nuclear capabilities do not pose a threat. Furthermore, the agreement already signals tacit support for India to be recognized as a nuclear weapon state. Given this situation, endorsing India as the sixth recognized NWS is the only choice that reinforces the United States’ commitment to the NPT while simultaneously acknowledging that realizing the lofty goals of nonproliferation and disarmament will take patience and compromises. In adopting this approach, the U.S. can make clear that it is ready to work with nuclear states to find pragmatic solutions to proliferation risks and issues of international nuclear oversight. Ultimately this option demonstrates the continued relevance of the NPT and creates a new, more realistic starting point for a moving toward a nuclear weapons-free world, albeit via a tortuous path.

India’s nuclear weapons pose no threat to U.S. interests or to international peace and security. Having proven itself a responsible member of the international community, there is no inherent reason why India should not be recognized as a nuclear weapon state. In accordance with international norms, India has a doctrine of no first-use. In contrast to some recognized NWS that have large nuclear weapon stockpiles, India’s limited arsenal is proportional to its goal of deterrence. Unlike China and Pakistan,India has never attempted to proliferate nuclear weapons. Arguably, the post-1968 date of its nuclear testing, a mere technicality, is the only reason why India is not already the sixth recognized nuclear weapon state.

Adapt the NPT to accommodate responsible nuclear powers, or risk it loosing relevance.  As long as India remains outside the NPT framework, there is no guarantee that they will not reverse their present acceptable policies. Only binding NPT regulations ensures that they will continue to respect international norms. Considering U.S. heightened awareness of proliferation risks, regulating nuclear weapon states is more important than ever. Therefore, universalizing the NPT, even if it entails compromising the international prohibition on recognizing additional nuclear weapons states, is the best way to strengthen the nonproliferation and disarmament regime. The NPT is the only existing truly international mechanism for regulating nuclear activity, so it is better to adapt the system to accommodate responsible emerging powers rather than driving such states to operate outside the system. Importantly, opposing India’s desire to join the NPT as a NWS on the basis of Resolution 1887 or narrow national interests will do nothing to strengthen the NPT.[1]

Prevent nuclear commerce between India and a rogue state or non-state actor. The U.S. should ensure that India is bound by the same obligations as other states in the nonproliferation regime in order facilitate its national security priority of keeping nuclear power and knowhow out of the wrong hands.


Setting a dangerous precedent: what about Israel and Pakistan? If we amend the NPT to accommodate India, surely Israel, who is openly suspicious of its neighbors, and Pakistan, whose intentions are unclear, will demand similar treatment. Given the undergoing regime changes in the Middle East, official recognition of Israel as a nuclear weapon state could derail the burgeoning democratic movements and spark a regional arms race. Similarly, refusing Pakistani demands for recognition as a NWS risks dis-incentivizing the government to cooperate with the U.S. on rooting out the Taliban, stabilizing Afghanistan, and counterterrorism. Likewise, opening the Pakistani market for nuclear technology could further undermine the nonproliferation norm. Additionally, either situation could also drive Iran to withdraw from the NPT in the hopes of rejoining in the future as a NWS. Even among states who have proven themselves responsible on nuclear matters, special treatment for India might give rise to the perception that states outside the framework are treated better than those who purport to follow its rules. As a consequence, Argentina, South Korea, Japan, Brazil and other NNWS capable of producing weapons, might rethink their nuclear policies if they no longer fear negative consequences.

Disturbing delicate power balances. To the discontent of the U.S., China is preparing to build Pakistan two nuclear reactors on the grounds that such a deal differs little from the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement[2]. U.S. advocacy of India becoming a legitimate nuclear weapon state could prompt China to extend its nuclear support to Pakistan as a counter-measure. Therefore, this option risks raising tensions between the U.S. and China at a critical moment in the transition from a unipolar world order dominated by the U.S. to a multipolar international society over which China has increasing influence. In the worst-case scenario it may cause the long-feared arms race between India and Pakistan to materialize, jeopardizing regional stability in South Asia.

Risks eroding NPT norms. The nonproliferation regime was designed to convince states that there is no great value in possessing nuclear weapons. Bending and /or amending the NPT rules to accommodate India undermines the whole treaty, and consequently the whole nonproliferation regime. While the NPT has not completely prevented nuclear weapons proliferation, it has been rather successful in persuading states to respect international norms. It works because it lays out clear rules whose adherence is internationally monitored. While letting India join the club of nuclear states might not pose any intrinsic security threats, accepting its refusal to abandon its nuclear weapons shows weakness. India’s demand to be recognized as a nuclear weapon state proves the regime is failing to dissuade states that it is in their interest to obtain nuclear weapons. In light of the lack of strong enforcement and accountability mechanisms, letting India join the NPT as a NWS could discourage other states from working to reach agreements for the next nuclear review conference in 2015.

Politically improbable. There are various ways to amend the NPT to accommodate India, but each of them presents complexities. One proposal calls for revising the 1968 cut-off date for nuclear weapon state status, yet no consensus has been reached in selecting the new cut-off date. Since India considers its 1974 test a “peaceful nuclear explosion,” the incident does not technically count as a nuclear weapon test. Accordingly, the NPT would have to accept 1998 as the new cut-off date, which would also make Pakistan eligible for accession as a NWS. Even if this were acceptable to the U.S., a majority of all NPT states, including all five nuclear-weapon states and all other parties which are then-members of the IAEA Board of Governors, must approve any amendment to the NPT. It is highly unlikely that the U.S. can persuade the requisite 82 countries (out of 163 parties to the Treaty) to ratify an amendment on India’s behalf. Furthermore, the extension amendment would only apply to the states which actually ratified it, leaving the question of India’s status as a legal NWS less than fully resolved.

Option 2: Pressure India to join as a NNWS

For better or for worse, the NPT is the cornerstone of our current nonproliferation regime and the U.S. should uphold its rules (and therefore only let India join as a NNWS) in the interest of preventing proliferation to new states and non-state actors, which pose grave security risks.


Security Council Resolution 1887 calls on all parties not signatories of the NPT to accede as non-nuclear weapons states. Universal ratification of the NPT under its current provisions would greatly strengthen its ability to regulate nuclear-related issues. Not only would universalization bring all states within the binding legal framework, it would also symbolize unanimous commitment to nonproliferation and disarmament. Such symbolism would carry a significant moral weight, reinforcing the nonproliferation regime’s legitimacy. As the only state to have ever employed a nuclear weapon, the U.S. should assume leadership on strengthening the NPT. This entails enforcing the existent rules, which currently deny India (and Pakistan and Israel) the possibility to accede to the NPT as anything other than a non-nuclear state. U.S. pressure on Egypt, Brazil, and Argentina convinced them to give up their nuclear weapons so there is reason to believe it could also be effective on India, especially given the leverage over India afforded to the U.S. by their nuclear agreement.

Help India set a positive example. If India abandons its nuclear weapons program,Pakistan might be persuaded to follow suit, since their own program was conceived as a reaction to perceived Indian aggression. This would directly benefit U.S. interests by freeing up more Pakistani attention and resources for use in counterterrorism and management of the Taliban, which would benefit U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.


Calling on India again and again to join as a NNWS is not only futile, but counter-productive. Repeated calls for India, Israel, and Pakistan to accede to the NPT as NNWS have proven ineffective. The hollow tradition of simply exhorting these countries to reconsider their position should be replaced with concrete actions to engage these states in nonproliferation and disarmament measures through any means possible. This includes letting them join the NPT under less-than-ideal conditions.

Do not distract attention away from states that pose nuclear threats. Pressuring India to abandon its nuclear weapons program should not be a U.S. priority while it faces far greater risks of nuclear proliferation and insecurity from countries that are defying NPT obligations or operating outside the framework of the treaty in a manner less responsible than India. In other words, it should concentrate on trying to bring the nuclear activity of Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea under international regulation instead of India, whose activity is much less threatening.

Do not be hypocritical. The recognized NWS are sending mixed messages while exhorting India, Israel, and Pakistan to abort their programs even while justifying their own possession of nuclear weapons in terms of security. This hypocrisy undermines the goals of disarmament and nonproliferation and delegitimizes the U.S. as leader of the nonproliferation regime.

Option 3: Maintain status quo

It is naive to expect the desired outcome from either pressuring India to join the NPT as a NNWS or amending the Treaty to allow them to join as a NWS. At the same time, India’s nuclear weapons — whether or not they are officially recognized — do not pose any major threat to U.S. security or regional interests. Therefore, the United States has the option to forego options 1 and 2, effectively maintaining the status quo.


Focus on the existing strategic partnership. Through initiating a strategic partnership and enacting the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation bill, the U.S. is already managing India’s nuclear capabilities. It should use this bilateral framework to ensure that India continues not to pose a threat to U.S. Interests. As victims of major terrorist attacks, India and the United States have a shared interest in succeeding in the fight against al-Qaeda and its operational and ideological affiliates. Neither pressuring India to join the NPT as a NNWS nor expending the diplomatic capital necessary to lobby for India’s right to enjoy the status of a recognized NWS has much effect on these shared interests. In contrast, continued focus on bilateral cooperation does serve these interests while simultaneously strengthening the nonproliferation regime, albeit outside an international framework.

Find alternative ways to bring India into the international nonproliferation regime. There are ways to bring India closer to the NPT by re-conceiving certain aspects of it, short of formally amending it. For example, NPT members could create a special protocol allowing India, Pakistan, and Israel to function as if they were NWS without technically allowing them to join. In this case, they would retain their existing safeguard arrangements. Another option would be to create a new category within the NPT such as “states with nuclear weapons” or states with “advanced nuclear technological capabilities.”[3] Following the precedents set by the IAEA Board of Governors, this category would comprise states who meet certain benchmarks with regards to nonproliferation.[4]

The lesser of all evils. Both of the other two options are outlined above are too risky: Amending the treaty to accommodate India might give rise to pressure from Pakistan and Israel to join. Meanwhile it would appear unfair to NNWS who have obeyed the rules. On the other hand, trying to force India to join as a NNWS might make them less cooperative and induce them to try and push their weapons program underground, which would undermine the NPT in a manner worse than amending it. This would undo decades of U.S. efforts to increase transparency and promote trust on nuclear issues.


India’s outsider status is one of the main issues that puts the NPT in crisis, so resolving it would go along way in strengthening the Treaty. Attempts to sidestep the issue of whether India should join the NPT as a NWS or a NNWS ignore the elephant in room.India’s nuclear weapons will not vanish on their own nor will the rest of the world easily accept them, so ignoring the situation only risks the problem resurfacing at a later time. Currently, by proposing resolution 1887 openly calling for NPT universalization while selling dual-use technology to India, the U.S. is sending mixed messages about its commitment to the NPT. Leaving these contradictory positions un-reconciled is dangerous. Clearly, nonproliferation is a vital interest for the U.S. so it should do everything possible to strengthen the international norms regulating nuclear activity. In the absence of any viable alternative to the NPT, this requires acting in accordance with NPT obligations as an example for other states to emulate. Maintaining the status quo provides no solution to the problem of needing India to adhere to binding international nuclear regulations. Rather, it simply defers making the necessary decision to a later time. The earlier the U.S. seeks a solution, the sooner it can make progress toward reaching its nonproliferation goals. Decisive action on this matter enhances the perception that the U.S. is capable of working with outlier countries to find mutually agreeable solutions.


The possession of nuclear weapons by non-parties, the inability to profoundly regulate Iran’s nuclear activities, and the fact that North Korea has withdrawn, signal that the NPT is in crisis. In the absence of a viable multilateral alternative to the NPT framework, the United States should strive to make the existing system more effective. Welcoming India into the NPT as a NWS would increase transparency regarding India’s nuclear activities, an important step in assuaging the fears of neighboring Pakistan. Although the counter-argument outlining the risks that India’s accession entails is compelling, it is outweighed by several factors. Firstly, India’s circumstances are truly unique. With its limited nuclear arsenal for deterrence, and exemplary track record of responsible behavior, India is the only non-party who merits NPT admission as a nuclear weapons state. Secondly, if the U.S. were to propose an amendment conference and take pains to explain to the world why this exception makes strategic sense, it would revitalize a stagnant NTP and restore faith in our collective commitment to nonproliferation. “Indian participation in the NPT will not, by itself, eliminate the problems the NPT now confronts, especially those caused by North Korea, Iran, and the potential of nuclear terrorism. But, with India supporting the regime, the world would finally have all nuclear-armed great powers committed to the same rules – an unprecedented convergence that could reinvigorate non-proliferation politics in a manner more meaningful than the distant vision of a world without nuclear weapons.”[5] In the end, India joining the NPT would mark an important step in bringing the world closer to a universal system pragmatic enough to handle the complicated realities while furthering the long-term goals of nonproliferation and disarmament. Accordingly, the United States should openly support India’s efforts to become the sixth officially recognized NWS and facilitate the NPT accession process.

[1] Fidler, David P. And Sumit Ganguly. “India Wants to Join the Non-Proliferation Treaty as Weapon State”. YaleGlobal Online Magazine. January 2010.
[2] Hibbs, Mark. “What the China-Pakistan Nuclear Agreement Means” Foreign Policy. June 4, 2010.
[3] Kumar, A. Vinod. “Reforming the NPT to include India”. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. May 2010.[4] Ibid.
[5] Fidler and Sumit. “India Wants to Join the Non-Proliferation Treaty as Weapon State”. YaleGlobal Online Magazine. January 2010.Published by Security Studies Online on November 13, 2011.