America’s handling of proliferation questions looks cavalier
The United States has decided to impose sanctions on nine foreign firms — including six Chinese, one Austrian and two Indian ones — for transferring banned technology to Iran. Exactly what they transferred the US State Department didn’t say. But Jeffrey Lewis, the Arms Control Wonk showed a little more imagination than press reporters and did the obvious thing. He emailed the two Indian companies in question. One of them, Sandhya Organics, promptly responded, saying that they had shipped 1.5 metric tonnes of phosphorous oxychloride after completing all the necessary documentation required under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Jeffrey checked with Scott Gearity, an export control expert, who responded that the export of this chemical does not violate India’s obligations under the CWC.
And today’s Indian Express reports that Sabero Organic Chemicals Gujarat is owned by an American citizen, albeit of Indian descent. This company has revealed that it had shipped a single consignment of 200 tonnes of tri-methyl phosphite to Iran two years ago. This chemical too is under the same class as phosphorous oxychloride, what Scott describes as ‘stuff that may be produced in large commercial quantities for applications not banned under the convention. In other words, this chemical has a lot of innocuous industrial uses’.
On the face of it, at least as far as the two Indian companies are concerned, the US State Department has got it wrong. It must realise that it simply won’t do to cloak its allegations behind a veil of secrecy and still expect to be taken seriously. Without adequate care and verification, such allegations only damage America’s credibility. For example, if the State Department got it wrong on the Indian companies, isn’t it reasonable to believe that it has made similar errors with respect to the Chinese ones? And if the Chinese ones really are guilty, doesn’t the State Department blunder allow them to claim the benefit of the doubt? In all likelihood, the State Department will feel compelled to stand by its position, even in the face of reasonable doubts about the accuracy of its allegations, only to create an avoidable fly in the ointment as far as by bilateral relations are concerned.