The Indian government has taken a major step towards completing its controversial nuclear cooperation deal with the United States by moving the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency for approving an inspections (safeguards) agreement it signed last year with the IAEA secretariat pertaining to civilian nuclear reactors.
The news has been greeted by the domestic political opposition with howls of protest and accusations of deception and a violation of the commitment the Manmohan Singh government made just a few days ago to seek a vote of confidence from Parliament before approaching the IAEA Board of Governors.
Meanwhile, the text of the safeguards agreement, which the government claims is classified and confidential, has been leaked. About 10 hours after it was posted on several websites by arms control groups on Wednesday night, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs made it public yesterday only to draw acerbic criticism of its contents.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is in a minority in Parliament after the Left parties, on whom it was dependent for support for more than four years, withdrew it two days ago. The Left parties’ decision came after the government reneged on its promise not to move the IAEA Board without considering the findings of a joint UPA-Left committee on the nuclear deal, set up last year.
In a dramatic U-turn, the Samajwadi Party, a regional party based in northern Uttar Pradesh state, has decided to back the deal and support the government. But it is not clear that the SP’s 39 members of parliament (MPs) can help the UPA stitch together a parliamentary majority after the Left’s 59 MPs withdrew support.
The Left has sharply attacked the UPA for approaching the IAEA despite being a "minority government." It says Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in an unseemly hurry to push the deal and demands to know what he discussed with U.S. President George W Bush when they met in Japan earlier this week on the sidelines of the G8 summit.
The Right, led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has accused the government of "deception at midnight" for surreptitiously moving the IAEA.
Both opposition groups have criticized the safeguards agreement as falling well short of the solemn commitments Singh made to the Indian Parliament in March 2006.
Singh had told Parliament that the agreement would be "India-specific," India would obtain assurances of uninterrupted fuel supply, the rights to build a "strategic fuel reserve" and take "corrective measures" in case of an interruption in supplies.
"However, the agreement circulated amongst the Board of Governors does not contain these assurances in the main text; it does so only in the preamble," says M.V. Ramana, an independent nuclear affairs analyst at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in the Environment and Development in Bangalore. "And the preamble does not have operative significance or legal force."
"Besides," adds Ramana, "the body of the text is almost identical to the language of the standard safeguards agreement the IAEA signs with non-nuclear weapons states, called INFCIRC (Information Circular) 66 in the Agency’s jargon. This will make it open to the criticism that it fails to defend India’s strategic autonomy as a de facto nuclear weapons state, as Singh promised to do. Nor does it explicitly guarantee uninterrupted fuel supplies."
The Right has already launched an attack on the agreement along these lines. The BJP has accused the government of violating the assurance contained in the original text of the deal signed between Bush and Singh in July 2005 that India would have "the same benefits and advantages" and the same obligations as other "states with advanced nuclear technology" such as the U.S., a term widely interpreted to mean nuclear weapons-states.
On the other hand, the agreement has drawn flak from arms control and nuclear disarmament groups both in India and internationally because it unduly favors India.
Says Sukla Sen of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, a broad-based network of more than 200 Indian peace groups: "The agreement is fatally flawed because it is part of a larger deal that allows India to keep its nuclear arsenal and make more fuel for nuclear weapons. It detracts from the objectives of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, and will have a negative global impact."
Similarly, U.S. Congressman Edward Markey, a senior member of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, and co-chair of the House Bipartisan Task Force on Non-proliferation, has described the agreement as "worse than useless" and "a sham."
He was quoted as saying: "This pathetic safeguards agreement not only seriously undermines the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but it also sends the exact wrong message to Iran: that international nuclear safeguards are only for show. With this agreement, the IAEA has thrown its principles out the window and has abandoned its most important responsibilities."
Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association (U.S.) has also slammed the agreement, and says, it "contains conflicting language on what India might be able to do if it resumes testing and fuel supplies are terminated."
According to the preamble, India may take unspecified "corrective measures" to ensure fuel supplies in the event that they are interrupted. But Paragraph 32 of the text says that India and the IAEA will jointly determine whether and when a facility may be withdrawn from safeguards. This is different from the normal INFCIRC 66 agreement which gives the IAEA "the sole authority" to do so.
Kimball added that if India interprets the agreement as allowing it to remove facilities or materials from safeguards in the event of a fuel supply interruption (which would only likely happen in the event that India resumes testing), this would violate the principle of permanent safeguards over all nuclear materials and facilities. It would also contradict the requirement established by the U.S. Congress in implementing legislation passed in 2006 the Hyde Act that the safeguards last "in perpetuity and are consistent with IAEA standards and practices."
As the debate on the nuclear deal moves on to a different plane, two things are clear.
First, the Indian domestic political opposition is highly unlikely to be satisfied with the government’s interpretation that the safeguards agreement as drafted meets the requirements of the promised "India-specific" agreement with all its assurances.
"It is plain that the agreement will not fly and receive anything approaching consensual or broad-based support in India," says Ramana. "It will remain controversial and highly divisive."
Second, the agreement will face some resistance, possibly in the IAEA Board of Governors, and almost certainly in the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, which must grant India clean and unconditional exemption from its nuclear commerce rules, which prohibit trade with a country that has not signed the NPT and does not accept full-scope safeguards on all its nuclear facilities in perpetuity.
The deal must clear these hurdles in record time if it is to be taken up by the U.S. Congress before it adjourns on Sept. 26 prior to the Nov. 4 elections.
According to the Washington Post, the Hyde Act mandates that Congress must be in 30 days of continuous session to consider it, and there are less than 40 days left in the session. So the deal "appears unlikely to win final approval in the U.S. Congress this year."
That leaves only a short interval, the next couple of weeks, for both the IAEA and the NSG to clear the deal. It is improbable that this will happen.
The Indian government’s "victory" in taking the deal to the IAEA in the teeth of strong domestic opposition may yet turn out to be pyrrhic.