Lawmaker’s Disclosure May Torpedo Nuke Deal

NEW DELHI – Chances of the United States-India nuclear deal being completed have greatly receded with the release by a key US lawmaker of a so-far-secret Bush administration document which says Washington will not sell sensitive nuclear technologies to India and will terminate nuclear commerce with it if India conducts a test.

The disclosures by Congressman Howard L. Berman, who is a Democrat from California and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), have rattled the Indian government and precipitated a major domestic political crisis.

The document, a 26-page response by the US to 45 questions raised last October by Berman’s predecessor on the HFAC, the late Tom Lantos, dates back to this past January. It was made public just two days before the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group began its meeting Thursday in Vienna to consider granting a special exemption to India from its nuclear trade rules.

The NSG, a private arrangement created soon after India’s first nuclear test in 1974, is badly divided on the waiver, and failed to clear at its first meeting on the India issue two weeks ago.

"It would be a miracle if the NSG now grants India the ‘clean and unconditional’ exemption that New Delhi insists on," says Sukla Sen, a peace activist and a member of the national coordination committee of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, a conglomerate of more than 250 Indian peace groups, which opposes the deal on the ground that it goes against the objective of nuclear disarmament and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

Sen added that the "hands of the dissenters in the Group have been greatly strengthened by the disclosure that the US is only willing to grant India a conditional waiver from its own domestic laws, but is pressing the NSG to adopt a wholly different standard."

At the August 21-22 meeting of the NSG, more than 20 of its 45 member-countries moved more than 50 amendments to a US-drafted waiver resolution.

Led by Austria, New Zealand, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland, a number of NSG states are expected to raise objections and amendments to a slightly revised US draft resolution now before the Group for discussion.

"It is clear that the package which is before us (NSG) still needs some work to achieve the outcome which can be the net gain to the quality of international security architecture," an official of one of the dissenting countries told the Indian news agency, Press Trust of India, ahead of the Group’s meeting. "A number of measures have to be added to the current package before it can be considered to be a net gain for the world."

Signaling major difficulties for the passage of the draft proposal, the dissenting countries yesterday held a strategy session in Vienna to discuss how to approach the meeting.

The disclosures in the US administration’s letter make it clear that Washington interprets the bilateral "123 agreement" signed with India last year radically differently from the way New Delhi does.

The US interpretation requires India to be in conformity with a special legislation passed by the US Congress in December 2006 called the Henry J. Hyde Act. But India says the 123 agreement must prevail over the Hyde Act

India argues that that the US has guaranteed uninterrupted fuel supplies to India, and that nothing in the 123 agreement prevents India from conducting further nuclear tests. But the Hyde Act stipulates that nuclear cooperation with India would cease in the event of a nuclear test.

The administration’s position upholds the stipulation, and says that the US has a clear right to terminate nuclear cooperation immediately and requires the return of equipment and materials in the event of an Indian nuclear test.

It explicitly states that the fuel supply assurances are "not meant to insulate India against the consequences of a nuclear explosive test or violation of nonproliferation commitments." They are only meant to cover "disruptions in supply to India that may result through no fault of its own," such as a trade war, contract failure or market upheavals.

India asserts that it has a right to take "corrective measures" in case of supply interruptions and to build a "strategic fuel reserve." But the administration’s letter says that "there is neither a minimum or maximum quantity of nuclear material in India’s reserve."

It also says "the US government will not assist India in the design, construction or operation of sensitive nuclear technologies." But the 123 agreement had left the window open for such transfers in the future.

The Indian government reacted extremely defensively to these disclosures, saying: "We do not as a matter of policy comment on internal correspondence with the different branches of another government… We have a unilateral moratorium on testing. This is reflected in the India-US joint statement of July 18, 2005 [which initiated the deal in the first place]…"

However, its panic was evident in an emergency high-powered government meeting last night, attended by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and India’s Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar.

The entire opposition, from the Left to the Right, has pounced on the government and accused it of having betrayed the assurances it gave to India’s Parliament.

The Left parties argue that their opposition to the deal stands vindicated. And the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party has charged the government with "deliberately and knowingly" misleading the people and Parliament.

Domestic political opposition to the deal is likely to mount by the hour even as it faces rough weather at the NSG meeting in Vienna. With this, the chances of the deal going through during the term of President George W. Bush appear slim.

For this to happen, the NSG must grant India a special waiver, and the US Congress must ratify the 123 agreement during its forthcoming session, from September 8 to 26. In the present circumstances, Congress is unlikely to approve the agreement with just an "up and down" or yes or no vote. A debate is likely to lead to amendments.

Meanwhile, the Arms Control Association (US), which has been leading a campaign against the deal, has termed the revised US resolution in the NSG as "irresponsible." Its executive director Darryl F. Kimball says it "does not incorporate any meaningful adjustments or concessions and is essentially the same as the earlier draft proposal," which failed to win a consensus.

Kimball argues that the revised proposal contains only "two cosmetic adjustments," one of which calls for extraordinary consultation within the NSG "if circumstances have arisen which require consultations." But this is already contained in the NSG guidelines (paragraph 16) that allow for a special meeting in the event of extraordinary events, including a nuclear test.

The deal now appears set to run into serious trouble both at the NSG and within India.

(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.