Indo-US Nuclear Deal Hits Doldrums

NEW DELHI – The controversial United States-India "civilian nuclear cooperation" agreement met with a major setback over the weekend when the Senate formally went into recess without voting for a bill that would have granted President George W. Bush the necessary powers to enable the deal to be implemented.

The Indian government has been rattled by this development and is pinning its hopes on a brief session of Congress in mid-November, when it reconvenes after elections to be held on Nov. 7 to the entire House of Representatives and one-third of all seats in the Senate.

Both the Bush administration and the Indian government had invested a great deal of effort into lobbying for a quick passage of the bill (S.3709) through the Senate. The House has already passed a broadly similar legislation. The two chambers are later meant to reconcile the two bills and produce a single unified law.

This law would implicitly recognize India as a nuclear weapons-state and permit civilian nuclear commerce with it although India has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970 and has become a nuclear power in violation of it.

However, the Senate bill first ran into numerous procedural complications and then got tied up with the extraneous or unrelated agendas of some senators.

For instance, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of the Democratic Party moved an amendment that would prevent all spent fuel coming to his native Nevada for storage at the Yucca Mountain Repository. This would presumably include fuel burned in reactors supplied to India by the U.S. or from plants that use materials traded under the India-U.S. nuclear cooperation deal.

On Saturday, the Democrats listed as many as 19 amendments to S.3709 and rejected a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to have the bill passed in its present form through a "unanimous consent" procedure, with the promise of some changes to be considered and discussed later.

Although the Democrats agreed to accord a high priority to the bill in the "lame duck" Senate session coming up after Nov. 13, there is no guarantee that it will be taken up for a vote. The Democrats are expected to do better than the Republicans in the Senate elections and may not allow the new chamber to be convened till January.

"All this is bad news for the deal," M.V. Ramana, an independent nuclear affairs expert based at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, Bangalore told IPS. "But it’s not terrible news. There is still a good chance that the Senate resolution will eventually go through. But there is now a higher probability that more and more new conditions will be imposed, which limit the degree of cooperation permitted under the deal or demand special assurances from India, which are not reciprocally sought from the U.S."

If the deal cannot be approved by the present Congress, it will once again have to go through the entire process of drafting of separate resolutions for the two chambers of the new Congress and of securing agreement on them.

The more conditions imposed on the deal, the more it will differ in content from the original agreements signed between Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July 2005 and March 2006.

"It’s clear that the fate of the nuclear deal now depends on the arcane processes and parochial concerns that mark U.S. domestic politics, rather than on the dynamics of the burgeoning India-United States strategic relationship," argues Achin Vanaik, professor of international relations and global policies at Delhi University. "Various senators’ preferences and sectional interests will influence the way the agreement is shaped. The initiative is no longer in India’s hands."

The Indian government is particularly disappointed and nervous at the weekend’s result because it had made a strong pitch for the deal through its top diplomat and special envoy, Shyam Saran, and more recently, through Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

Last week in the U.S., Mukherjee met various members of the India Caucus in Congress, as well as the Zionist group the American Jewish Committee and influential representatives of the Indian-American community.

U.S. business groups, in particular the defense industry lobby and nuclear power equipment manufacturers, have also been strongly pitching for the nuclear deal, according to Subrata Ghoshroy of the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Center for International Studies. He calls the deal a "triumph of the business lobby." But the triumph has not yet been fully accomplished.

Had the Senate vote gone through before the recess, India would have been in an advantageous position at consultations due later this month in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. The deal must be approved by the 45-member NSG before it becomes effective. The International Atomic Energy Agency also must clear it.

There may be some opposition in the NSG to the agreement from the Nordic states, Ireland, and New Zealand. China too is known to be uncomfortable with it, but is keeping its cards close to its chest.

Besides this uncertainty, and problems likely to be caused by a shift in the balance of power between the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress, the deal faces two obstacles: one in America, the other in India.

First, the Senate draft resolution explicitly prohibits the "export or re-export to India of any equipment, materials, or technology related to the enrichment of uranium, the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, or the production of heavy water." But the Indian nuclear lobby is extremely keen on the "right" to reprocess spent fuel from power reactors, whether imported or domestic, so that it can extract plutonium from it.

India has drawn up super-ambitious plans to produce 275,000 Mw of power (or more than double the Indian power-generation capacity today from all sources combined) by the mid-21st century. This presumes the use of fast-breeders reactors based on the reprocessing of spent fuel.

India’s Atomic Energy Commission chairman is on the record as saying that he won’t accept a deal that does not allow spent fuel reprocessing.

It is not clear how the Bush and Singh governments will crack this nut. Their difficulties will grow if the Democrats emerge stronger in Congress in the November elections. In that case, the influence of the traditional nonproliferation lobby will grow in the U.S., and the deal’s passage will bear its impress.

The domestic Indian obstacle is the political opposition, especially the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, which rejects any shift away from the "goal posts" set by the original July 2005 agreement.

It will try to hold the Singh government down to its earlier commitments, which call for "full," unconditional nuclear cooperation. This is likely to narrow the government’s room for maneuver and compromise.

(Inter Press Service)

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.