Testing Times for Indo-US Nuclear Deal

As the United States and India held yet another round of intensive talks this week to flesh out the landmark nuclear deal they signed in July, it became clear that they will both explore how far they can push each other for concessions that would ease Congressional approval.

Both sides are bargaining hard as they test each other’s will to implement the agreement quickly. They are mobilizing their energies both in bilateral talks and through media comments.

Under the deal, the U.S. has offered a one-time exception for India in the existing global nonproliferation regime so that India can keep its nuclear weapons without signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Meanwhile, India is coming under increasing pressure to demonstrate its loyalty to a larger "strategic partnership." Prime Minister Manmohan Singh absented himself from an important meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, (SCO) this week, largely because the US views the SCO with suspicion and New Delhi does not want to antagonize Washington.

The SCO includes China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Two of these, Russia and China are nuclear powers while India and Pakistan, which have observer status at the SCO, are aspiring nuclear powers having carried out weapon tests in 1998.

Iran, which also has observer status and is accused by the West of trying to develop nuclear weapons, sent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Shanghai summit.

While Indian nuclear hawks run a spirited campaign against the deal as a "sellout" and a "coup" to defang India, an impressive number of US Nobel laureates have issued a strong statement against the agreement.

In the nuclear poker between Washington and New Delhi, two sets of issues have become critical for settling the agreement and getting it ratified by the Congress.

One set pertains to "technical," but important, questions: What kind of safeguards must India accept on its civilian nuclear program? Assuming India is allowed to import nuclear fuel, what criteria will determine how it is modified/processed, stored and/or reprocessed? What can guarantee that it will not be diverted to military uses? And under what terms the agreement can be terminated by either side?

The second issue concerns possible further nuclear testing by India. Must it sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or a bilateral agreement with the US not to conduct future tests? Or will a voluntary moratorium of the kind declared in 1998 and reiterated in the July 2005 accord do?

Ideally, the US would like India to offer something more than the July assurance so that the deal can pass relatively smoothly through the Congress: e.g. a legally binding commitment not to conduct a nuclear blast.

But India flatly rejects this. It wants to keep the moratorium voluntary. Such a moratorium can easily be rescinded. Under existing US laws, a country that conducts a nuclear test automatically attracts sanctions and forfeits civilian cooperation with the US.

These issues will figure in the coming round of talks next month. Both sides are proceeding with cautious optimism.

India’s options here are extremely limited. For all practical purposes, the Manmohan Singh government cannot amend or go beyond its understanding of the nuclear deal recorded in the July 18 agreement, which notifies as "civilian" only 14 out of its 22 power reactors (under operation or construction).

However, the Bush administration may not find it possible to pilot the agreement through unless it is seen to have extracted an additional assurance from India against further tests.

New Delhi is under pressure from its nuclear super hawks to test a hydrogen (thermonuclear or fusion) bomb so as to have a powerful deterrent not just against Pakistan, but against the major nuclear powers which have such weapons. It has conducted five tests of the less powerful, but immensely destructive, fission bomb. But its May 1998 hydrogen bomb test is widely believed to have been a dud.

India, meanwhile, has opened yet another front in the negotiations. It demands that it be allowed to build a stockpile of nuclear fuel for each of its civilian reactors. This would guarantee that supply of imported fuel would continue uninterrupted.

After India’s first (1974) nuclear blast, the US suspended supply of lightly enriched uranium to two of India’s reactors at Tarapur. "Although the Indian government cites this as the reason for demanding the "strategic stockpile" guarantee, the real reason may be more complex," says Kamal Mitra Chenoy of the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. "India is desperately short of uranium. Its sole operating uranium mine is running out of ore and there is public opposition to opening new mines."

The current negotiations between the US and India are focused on what is called the "123 agreement," pertaining to an amendment of Section 123 of the US atomic energy act dealing with nuclear exports. This is likely to be "marked up" soon in the form of bills to be voted by both Houses. This is expected to set the stage for passing the substantive "nuclear cooperation" agreement inked last July.

The bill’s passage may not be smooth. There is significant opposition to the deal in the House of Representatives and from nonproliferation experts. Indian-American groups as well as the Indian government’s lobbying agencies are working furiously to garner support for the deal.

Opposition to the deal has now been joined by eminent scholars and scientists in the US As many as 37 Nobel laureates have urged the Congress not to approve the deal "in its current form" because it is a "formula for destroying American nonproliferation goals."

In a letter, supported by the pro-peace federation of American scientists, they argue that the agreement "weakens the existing nonproliferation regime without providing an acceptable substitute. Since nothing is more important to US security than blocking further proliferation and possible use of nuclear weapons, the lawmakers should withhold their seal of approval"

The laureates include the distinguished economist Kenneth J. Arrow and scientists Raul Christian Lauterbur, Alfred Goodman Gilman, Roger Guilemin and Donald A. Glaser.

Interestingly, their letter criticizes Washington’s nuclear weapons doctrine too: the US cannot continue to treat nuclear weapons as "militarily useful and politically salient while expecting to stop global nuclear proliferation.The Indian nuclear deal is just one symptom of a bigger problem."

It also holds that the rapid growth of civilian nuclear power would increase the amount of fissionable material stored worldwide, and the number of facilities that could be used to build nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director-general Mohammed ElBaradei has weighed in on the side of the deal, and termed it "a creative break with the past." He says it would be illogical to deny civil nuclear technology to India –a country that has "not violated any legal commitment and never encouraged nuclear weapons proliferation" and is "a valued partner and a trusted contributor to international peace and security."

"This only casts doubt on the impartiality and credibility of the IAEA as a global nuclear watchdog," holds academic and antinuclear activist Chenoy.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau’s Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.