US-India Nuclear Deal Headed for Fiasco

NEW DELHI – As the tortuous negotiations for the United States-India nuclear deal enters its final stage, it becomes clear that India seriously underestimated the discomfort and opposition the agreement would arouse in many countries because of the special privileges granted to India, largely on New Delhi’s terms.

The emerging situation has thrown Indian policymakers off-balance. They are now groping for a strategy to deal effectively with dissenters in the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) which meets next week in Vienna, Austria.

The NSG, a private arrangement, must grant India a waiver from its tough rules governing nuclear trade before the deal can be completed. The rules prohibit nuclear commerce with countries that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). India is a non-signatory.

The NSG is due to discuss a US-drafted waiver motion on Sep. 4-5. It failed at its two-day meeting last week to agree on the proposed exemption. Several member-states raised objections and moved as many as 50 amendments to the text. Since the NSG works by consensus, even one member can hold up a decision.

Many NSG members, led by Austria, New Zealand, Ireland the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland, are expected to move amendments to advance the group’s fundamental non-proliferation objectives while granting India a waiver.

These amendments seek to impose three conditions on the exemption: periodic review of India’s compliance with nonproliferation commitments; explicit exclusion of uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent-fuel technologies from what can be exported to India; and most important, no more nuclear trade with India if this country conducts another nuclear test.

India however insists that the waiver must be "clean and unconditional."

Meanwhile, the US is likely to redraft the motion to meet some of the probable objections and reservations.

However, India and the US have started a new gambit, based on mutual accusation and posturing. Indian officials privately say the US did not pull its weight in lobbying the dissenting states hard enough, or that it "sabotaged" the NSG proceedings by firing from the dissenters’ shoulders.

The Americans say that India is being unreasonably inflexible because it does not realize that many NSG members will not go along with the old [Sep. 21] draft. There are limits to how much Washington can push them. Something has to give. India says it will reject anything but "cosmetic" changes in the old US draft.

"It’s hard to believe that the US would sabotage the deal at this stage, after having initiated the deal and gone out of its way to placate India," says physicist M.V. Ramana of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in the Environment and Development at Bangalore who is a noted commentator and author on nuclear proliferation issues.

He adds: "In any case, India was involved in negotiating every phrase in the resolutions brought before the IAEA and the NSG. It’s futile for India to blame the US It was at best naïve for it to trust Washington to do everything at the NSG."

Unless the NSG’s next meeting grants India a waiver, the deal is likely to miss the tight US Congress deadline for its ratification of a bilateral India-US agreement, which is a necessary precondition for the deal to take effect.

The "123 agreement," so called because it concerns Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act, 1954, was signed last year to enable nuclear commerce with India.

Congress is scheduled to meet beginning Sep. 8 and adjourn on Sep. 26 before it is reelected in November.

However, even if the NSG approves a waiver next week, the deal might not make it in time to the US Congress for its ratification.

"It’s not going to happen," Congressman Gary Ackerman told "The Times of India" at Denver, Colorado, where he is attending the Democratic National Convention. "There simply isn’t enough time."

According to Ackerman, the duration of the next Congress session falls short of the 30-day resting period the deal must have under current rules. Although it is technically possible to waive the rules, this will mean that Congress agrees to debate the 123 agreement rather than just pass an "up-and-down" or yes or no vote.

And if the agreement is opened up for debate, said Ackerman, "you can bet that there are some lawmakers who want to bring in amendments."

Such amendments are expected to bring the 123 agreement in conformity with a legislation that Congress passed in December 2006, called the Henry J. Hyde Act, which imposes numerous conditions upon India, including an end to nuclear cooperation with the US if India conducts a nuclear test.

Uncertainty over the deal’s fate has emboldened NSG dissenters to go public. Phil Goff, New Zealand’s disarmament and arms control minister, has said in a statement that "many countries spoke in favor of amendments" to the US draft at the last NSG.

Goff said: "A large number of countries, big and small, expressed views similar to New Zealand’s that there needed to be compatibility between the US-India agreement and the goals of the NSG… the discussions last week were robust and constructive."

Goff clarified that "while New Zealand remains a strong advocate of the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and would welcome India’s accession to these… we have not included these in our package of proposals."

India refuses to sign the treaty and will not accept any "prescriptive" advice to do so. While no NSG member expects India to sign the treaties, they want New Delhi to show some willingness to accommodate nonproliferation concerns.

The first signs of discomfort with the deal appeared at the Aug. 1 meeting of the IAEA’s board of governors, when many states expressed their reservations about the agency’s safeguards (inspections) agreement with India, but finally approved it. The reservations were centered on guarantees of uninterrupted fuel supplies and on India’s right to take "corrective measures" in case these are disrupted.

Even so, Austria, Costa Rica, the Netherlands and Norway made it clear in a joint statement that the board’s decision only endorses the safeguards agreement, but "in no way prejudge[s] the decision on a possible India-specific exemption in the NSG."

Austria even questioned the description of nuclear energy as an "efficient, clean and sustainable energy source," which lays the preambular basis for the safeguards agreement.

"Although the statement was a clear warning, Indian negotiators ignored it," says a high Indian official familiar with the talks on the deal, who insisted on anonymity. "They thought a combination of US strong-arm pressures and India’s new ‘with-us-or-against-us’ diplomacy would do the trick."

At the NSG meeting last week, opposition to the deal grew. A bloc of six states emerged (comprising Austria, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland) which acted in concert and issued a joint statement. This said their amendments were "based on concepts already enshrined in U.N. Security Council resolutions, in domestic legislation of [NSG member-states], and in bilateral nuclear supply agreements which [they] have concluded over the years."

These statements took Indian officials by surprise. They had expected the NSG meeting to be a roaring success and the crowning of world recognition of India’s "arrival on the global stage." They now describe its deliberations as a "blow" to India, even a "debacle."

Hectic and tough negotiations are reportedly in progress between the US and India on the draft of a new waiver text.

"The US will probably try to persuade India to accept at least one of the three proposed conditions, namely, exclusion of enrichment and reprocessing technology," says Ramana. "It is hard to say if India will agree to this while accepting a periodic review of its nonproliferation commitments and cessation of cooperation in case of an Indian nuclear test."

The Indian government has repeatedly said the deal does not, and cannot, compromise its "sovereign" right to test.

"But it seems even more unlikely," adds Ramana, "that the NSG dissenters will be satisfied with such a modified draft. The chances of the deal going through before the present term of the US Congress ends seem low."

Whatever happens, one thing is clear. Unless the movers of the amendments calling for such conditions can be persuaded, cajoled or coerced into dropping them, India must humble pie, agree to a compromise, and make the best of a bad deal. Or, India can walk away and lose the deal altogether – at least in the Bush administration’s term.

Neither prospect is pleasant for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who took his government to the brink by staking his personal stature on the deal and losing the support of the Left parties, substituting it with an alliance with the less reliable and opportunistic Samajwadi Party.

If the deal collapses, Singh’s position in the ruling coalition could become shaky. If he signs a compromised agreement, he will be accused of a "sellout."

(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.