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INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
     CURRENT ISSUE DECEMBER 25, 2006
 
   NATION: THE INDO-US NUKE DEAL
 

Why We Should Go Ahead

Despite criticism from the Right and the Left over its provisions, the pact is the best India can get if Washington sorts out the contentious clauses

 
  PICTURE SPEAK

PROMISES TO KEEP: Bush has agreed to fulfill all commitments to Manmohan

Will the deal cap India's Nuclear weapons Programme?

On the night the US Congress voted to approve the US India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006, the American ambassador to India, David Mulford, held a small celebratory dinner at Roosevelt House in Delhi. Among those present was Nicholas Burns, US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs and Washington's chief negotiator for the deal. When Mulford stood up to welcome the gathering, corks popped and champagne glasses were raised in toast. The ambassador described it as a "truly historic day", the advent of a whole new phase in relations between the two countries. Next, Burns talked of it as "liberation for India from three decades of nuclear isolation".

Yet, judging from India's reactions the following day, the celebrations appeared premature. Criticism poured in from both the Right and the Left. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main Opposition party, demanded that the Government reject the deal as it contained "humiliating conditions" designed to cap India's nuclear weapons programme. The CPI(M), a constituent of the ruling UPA, was as vehement in its condemnation. General Secretary Prakash Karat insisted that the Centre "should not proceed" with any further negotiations with the US as the bill "grossly violated" the reassurances given by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Parliament in August. Sections of the nuclear administration bristled with anger and P.K. Iyenger, a former Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chairman, even called it "a surrender of India's nuclear sovereignty".

    INTERVIEW | NICHOLAS BURNS

"The Gordian knot is cut"

Soon after the Congress voted on the Indo-US civilian nuclear Bill, Nicholas Burns, US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs and America's key negotiator, spoke to Managing Editor Raj Chengappa. Excerpts:

Q. You said you were 100 per cent satisfied with the final Bill passed by the Congress. But India does not seem to be.
A.
What the Bill does is that it fits well within the parameters of the two agreements of July 18, 2005 and March 2, 2006 that we had between us. Indians must reflect on the following points: India is being liberated from its nuclear isolation; India is being welcomed into the international proliferation regime; India will be open to financing and technology in a way that has not been for 35 years. These are enormous benefits.ed.

Q. In terms of reprocessing and enrichment, India considers being given access to the full fuel cycle as key to the agreement.
A.
The US, as a matter of policy, does not sell enrichment and reprocessing equipment to anyone around the world. And, normally, we don't receive spent fuel from countries. But with several countries we have made exceptions. So, if the Indian Government would like to discuss this, we could discuss it in the context of the 123 Agreement between us.

Q. The Bill also says that if India tests, the deal is off.
A.
This is an issue where we don't see eye to eye. We believe there is no need for further nuclear tests by India. I think we have been clear about what the consequences could be if there is a nuclear test by India.

Q. One of the irritants is the insistence of a convergence in our foreign policy on Iran's nuclear programme.
A.
I don't have any concerns about it because, while India and the US have very different policies on Iran, both are in the mainstream of international thought in trying to deny Iran nuclear weapons.

Q. There's more to be done to seal the deal like getting the 123 Agreement and also convincing the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
A.
Yes, a fair amount is left but the Gordian knot has been cut. You know, at the NSG, the US is acting as India's campaign manager.

Q. What can India look forward to in its ties with the US?
A.
I think we have crossed a great psychological hurdle. This deal opens up a million possibilities. We can now tackle other issues that perhaps in the past we have shied away from. There is no question that India and the US would be looking forward to ever closer military ties. We are both victims of terrorism and so, the US wishes to partner India in countering terrorism both in this region and globally. We can do much more to open up trade and investment bridges. All this can unleash the potential of the relationship we share.

To put an end to such misgivings, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice next day came out with a categorical reassurance that "the US intends to fulfill all of the commitments it made to India in the July 18 (2005) and March 2 (2006) joint statements". These declarations had laid down the parameters under which the two countries agreed to ink an audacious civilian nuclear agreement, ending 35 years of mistrust and missed opportunities.

  PICTURE SPEAK

NUCLEAR PRIDE: The 1998 Pokhran test site

Despite the assurance from Rice, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee was guarded in Parliament and welcomed the passage of the Bill as an enabling legislation. Ironically, even as US President George W. Bush scheduled a signing ceremony at the White House to turn the Bill into law, in Delhi, Manmohan was being hounded by his critics and asked to explain his actions in Parliament, again.

For former national security adviser Brajesh Mishra, the crucial question is does the deal curtail India's nuclear weapons programme? The US certainly did not set out to put a cap on India's atomic weapons when the deal was envisaged. Instead, it was triggered by a major effort by Bush to transform relations with India in the second term of his presidency. To do that, the Gordian knot over the divisive nuclear issue had to be cut. As former US ambassador to India Robert Blackwill said, "It was like a boulder in the living room that had to be moved out."

During Bush's first term, when Blackwill was ambassador, Mishra had made a modest offer to the then secretary of state, Colin Powell, to put two of India's reactors and all the ones being planned for the future under safeguards in return for fuel for Tarapur and some nuclear power technology. Mishra admits there was no response from Powell who was preoccupied with the post-9/11 crisis and appeared more Pakistan fixated. But a Washington insider said: "The proposal was considered absolute heresy by the Ayatollahs of non-proliferation in the administration itself."

  PICTURE SPEAK

BILL OF RIGHTS: US Senators at the Hill and MukherjeeWill India's Foreign

Policy now be dictated by the US?

It was Rice, after she took over from Powell in Bush's second term, who recognised the centrality of the nuclear issue and, as an analyst put it, "decided to crack it with some bold, out-of-the-box thinking". By then, America's interest had shifted from Europe to the Asia Pacific. US strategists now talked of India being a countervailing balance to a rapidly rising China. Delhi would join Beijing and Tokyo in shaping the emerging Asian security architecture. It was not without significance that on her first visit to India in March 2006, Rice said the US wanted "to help India become a major world power in the 21st century".

Soon after, on July 18, the first of the two landmark agreements was signed between Manmohan and Bush. Under it, the US would amend its law on atomic energy trade and permanently lift the ban against selling nuclear power technology to India that it had imposed after the 1974 Pokhran tests. In return, India agreed to segregate its power plants under civilian and military heads and bring reactors meant for civilian power supply under international safeguards. That process was completed on March 2 this year when Bush visited Delhi and agreed on India's separation plan. With the US Congress passing the Bill, it spells an end to India's pariah status, giving it the freedom to purchase fuel and nuclear power plants to substantially boost its nuclear energy production.

It was clear from the beginning that India would not only get to keep its nuclear weapons but also add to it if required. As Ashley J. Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a key US negotiator, said: "It was a political price to be paid to attain the larger objective of transforming relations with India." The Indian negotiators were, however, warned that while the 1974 and 1998 nuclear tests would be waived, any future tests by Delhi would terminate the deal.

Headed by Shyam Saran, who was then foreign secretary and recently became the prime minister's special envoy for the deal, the Indians began playing for far bigger stakes. As one of them said: "If we were willing to invest so much political capital, why play for peanuts? We decided to aim for bulls-eye." That meant, getting a permanent waiver for the offending sections in the US law to permit trade in nuclear power technology while allowing India to retain its nuclear weapons programme without any hindrance.

Under the new nuclear Bill, those objectives have clearly been achieved-it promises India access to the world's civilian nuclear technology and fuel supply. It also legitimises India's nuclear weapons programme, giving it a special status just short of that enjoyed by the five nuclear weapons states recognised by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The only offending clause, which the BJP rightly points out, is the warning that if India conducts a nuclear test in the future, the deal would be called off and severe sanctions reimposed. While India was against its inclusion, the US Congressmen were adamant-they wanted nothing in the Bill that would unravel the NPT structure. For the US, non-proliferation continues to be one of its main foreign policy objectives and the Bill, while making exceptions for India, is reflective of that.

Opponents of the Bill say the clause crosses the red line Manmohan had drawn over India's right to test. But the UPA Government is clear. The nuclear Bill is an enabling legislation passed by the US Congress, so it is essentially an internal matter of that country. What holds significance are the bilateral negotiations for the so-called 123 Agreement that would codify the Bill. A Government source says, "There is no way we would have such a clause put in the 123 Agreement and make it legally binding on us. Our commitment to have a unilateral moratorium on testing stays."

The BJP, also, is not on a strong wicket on the question of tests. For, soon after the 1998 tests, A.B. Vajpayee, the then prime minister, had stated in the UN General Assembly that he was willing to give juridical status to the voluntary moratorium. The nuclear establishment had also signaled to the government that the moratorium was acceptable to it as the 1998 tests had validated India's nuclear weapons and there was no need for more. Strangely in the 1999 Lahore agreement, the previous NDA regime had committed itself to a similar restraint on nuclear testing with Pakistan.

There are more hardheaded ways of looking at it. Scenario 1: India does not go ahead with the deal and retains its right to test. But, as regards testing, India is handicapped-it can ill-afford to do another test without inviting severe international sanctions. What India needs is fuel and nuclear power-maintaining status quo will not help. Even Mishra acknowledges the need for a deal with the US. Scenario 2: India goes ahead with the deal knowing that the US will break it off if it conducts a test. The advantage is it legitimises India's nuclear weapons while giving Delhi access to nuclear technology. If India tests, it must be prepared to face the political and economic fallout. But locked in a strong relationship with the US, it may not be so harsh if there is a strong imperative to do so.

If America is paranoid about preventing India from conducting another nuclear test, Delhi's paramount concern is to avoid a Tarapur-like humiliation. The US had helped India build the reactor in the 1960s. But after the 1974 test, Washington reneged on its commitment to ensure regular fuel supply to run it. It then used fuel supply to Tarapur to exert pressure on India to slow its bomb programme. It also prevented reprocessing of spent fuel, which it refused to take back, leaving India with no option but to build expensive storage facilities and bear maintenance costs.

So, when India negotiated to distinguish its civilian and nuclear reactors, secured fuel supply for the lifetime of the power reactors was a non-negotiable element. Both the negotiating teams had worked hard at a viable and credible separation plan. India finally agreed to designate 14 of its 22 reactors as civilian units. These 14 reactors were to be put under international safeguards monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as India would be allowed to import fuel to run them.

When the US insisted that the safeguards should be in perpetuity, India agreed but on one condition: guaranteed fuel supplies for the lifetime of the reactor. The US balked. Burns recalls: "I felt there was a strong possibility that the deal had fallen apart and we couldn't reassemble it." When he flew into Delhi with Bush and Rice on Air Force One, both of them urged him to negotiate with National Security Adviser (NSA) M.K. Narayanan and Saran on the evening before the summit. The teams sat till two in the morning and resumed negotiations at nine, arriving at a consensus barely 15 minutes before the Bush-Manmohan summit was to begin. When they entered the room, Burns says both the leaders turned and asked: "Do we have a deal?" In reply, they simply nodded.

Bush had agreed on a parallel commitment to India to ensure fuel supply that included working with other nations to meet any contingency in case Washington failed to do so. In return, India would have to put its civilian reactors under safeguards in perpetuity. Yet, when the Congress started working on the Bill, they began to hack away at that commitment. Democratic Senator Barack Obama insisted the Bill contain a clause ensuring "only reasonable supply of fuel". Also, the final Bill inhibits Washington from working with other countries to supply fuel to India in case the US could not. In their Joint Conference report, the Congress explained that it was essentially done to prevent India from stockpiling fuel and then going ahead with a nuclear test, knowing fully well that sanctions would have no impact.

Not only is the assurance of continuous fuel supply in doubt, it is also not clear whether India can reprocess spent fuel or return it to America. A good sign, though, is that the Bill does not prohibit reprocessing, leaving it instead for bilateral negotiations to sort out. For India, sustained fuel supply is at the heart of the deal. While the current stock of uranium is sufficient to meet the requirements of 10,000 MW of power, according to Planning Commission estimates, that figure must reach 30,000 MW by 2022 for nuclear power to assume any meaningful role in India's energy mix. To meet that target, India would need to import huge amounts of fuel for reactors built indigenously or imported.

Despite the ambiguity in the Bill over supply, Rice has clarified that the US would meet all its obligations agreed under the two joint statements. That assurance would have to figure in the 123 Agreement-if the US does that, then it's fine. Otherwise, the deal would be in trouble. M.R. Srinivasan, a former AEC chief, says: "I am baffled as to how the US will sort out the fuel issue." The Indian Government's stance is that, if the Bush administration is making such an explicit commitment, why should Delhi question its credentials. As one official said, "That's the US administration's headache, not ours."

Even as he welcomed the passage of the Bill in his suo motu statement in Parliament, Mukherjee spoke disapprovingly about some clauses, saying, "The Government has taken note of certain extraneous and prescriptive provisions of the legislation. We have always maintained that the conduct of foreign policy is determined solely by our national interests and is our sovereign right." What had irked Delhi was the constant reference to toe the US line over Iran's nuclear programme. Though the US Congress had removed it from the so-called "thou shalt" clause, which had made it binding on Washington to ensure India complied, it still found mention in several places in the Bill. More than the BJP, the CPI(M) decried the references to Iran as impinging on India's foreign policy prerogatives.

While Delhi grumbles over it, the Government's negotiators are going to make it clear that it cannot figure formally as a clause in the bilateral 123 Agreement. The US also agrees that it is the sense of the Congress and not a legally binding provision. Burns himself doesn't see it as a contentious issue (see box), arguing that it pertains only to curtailing any attempt by Iran to acquire or develop nuclear weapons. India has already voted along with the US in support of this at the IAEA board of governors meeting. Even Mishra admits that it is not in India's interests to have Iran go nuclear. So there is no real major foreign policy shift that India is making if it goes along with the US. It just doesn't like being told so by anyone.

So should India go ahead with the nuclear deal? The answer is a qualified yes. There are some caveats like assured fuel supply, not entering any legally binding clause on nuclear tests and keeping out extraneous issues in the 123 Agreement that are being negotiated. If the bilateral agreement takes care not to cross most of the red lines laid out by the Manmohan Government, there is no reason to hold back.

Let's not forget that India can benefit tremendously from the deal. It would get us out of the hole that we have been cornered into for 30 years and free our nuke programme from technology and fuel constraints. The largest reactors the country can build right now are 540 MW, whereas it can import reactors that can generate as much as 1,500 MW of power and make up the deficit rapidly. Tellis observes, "Without the agreement, India's nuclear power production would be locked in low single digits."

Apart from partially lifting the technology denial regime-for instance, the US will not allow India to import dual use technology on the missile front-there are much larger outcomes. This also lays down a solid base for a new Indo-US relationship that is far more trusting and engaged than ever before. That's why both the Indian Government and the nuclear establishment grabbed at the opportunity to enter into a deal with the US. If India is able to iron out the differences and US keeps its commitments, it's the best deal we can get.

-with inputs from Saurabh Shukla

 RELATED STORIES

Indo-US Nuclear Deal: Over The Hill

Indo-US Nuke Deal: Crossing A Big Hurdle
Indo-US Relations: The Bush Visit - The Giant Leap

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INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
CURRENT ISSUE
DECEMBER 25, 2006
 IN THIS ISSUE
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Getting Personal

Hanging in the Middle

Why We Should Go Ahead

Against National Interest

Ending the Isolation

Internal Injury

Withering Away

Investment Speedbreaker

Deep Waters

Southern Express

For Home, A Fistful Of Dollars

Life After 14k Surviving The Ride

Dancing On Safe Ground

The Grassland's Great Hope

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Divisional Managers

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