Sunday, July 29, 2007

Some more thoughts on the India-US nuclear deal

The slow and deliberately choreographed movement towards revealing the text of the Indo-US 123 Agreement has now reached it’s penultimate stage. Next week, in all likelihood, it will be made available to all. The Indian government has worked to build up opinion across the board through selective briefings (voluntary disclosure: I was in one of them). Two important public briefings have also taken place in New Delhi ( you will have to look in the press briefings for July 27, 07 for the text) and Washington DC. In New Delhi, National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, Department of Atomic Energy Chief Anil Kakodkar and Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon were the briefers, in Washington DC it was US Undersecretary of State Nick Burns.

They are targeting the political class which has been largely ignorant of the issues involved. The Markey riposte was par for the course for the "non-proliferation ayatollahs" in the US. In India, the Left’s reaction has been muted, because it knows that only by bringing down the government can the agreement be blocked. The BJP’s ‘sensible’ wing is for the agreement, though as of now they have merely commended the government’s negotiating prowess. But it has been equally important to get the Congress party on board, and that has been done in Congress-style, by a briefing to the Congress Working Committee and a congratulatory resolution hailing the PM.

There is still a great deal of confusion about the nature of the deal. Let us take up the issues one by one.

Prior Consent for reprocessing: The US has provided such consent to the EURATOM and Japan, and now India. The essence of the arrangement is the belief that leakage of material in the reprocessing area is a far more serious problem than a breach in other safeguards procedures. They are based around the “timely warning” principle. This is what a US State Department publication has to say on this, “ While the assurances of peaceful use that safeguards provide cannot be absolute, it is vital that such safeguards be as robust and effective as possible, for the risk of detection makes diversion more difficult and helps deter the pursuit of illicit nuclear programs. It is essential to the integrity and the objectives of the NPT regime that safeguards be able to provide timely warning of diversion, enabling an effective international response to be mounted.”

Towards this end, India offered the US a dedicated national facility, that will not only come under IAEA safeguards, but one that that will, be built to their specifications. When a batch of US-origin fuel is ready for reprocessing, India will call for a meeting, which the US will have to convene within 6 months, and the modalities and safety issues will be discussed. The US will okay the plan, or provide reasons as to why it cannot do so, all within the space of another year. The presumption is that subject to safety and security and non-diversion, the reprocessing permission will be available.

The fact is that such a situation remains in the realm of the future as of now. India will first have to acquire a US reactor, fuelled by US-origin fuel and run it till it accumulates a certain amount of spent fuel so as to reprocess it. An optimistic process would see this happening in 10-15 years from now. In the meantime, India will have time to build the promised facility and build up US confidence levels that the procedures in the plant are transparent and diversion proof.

Termination of cooperation: The US is bound by law to terminate cooperation with India if it conducts a nuclear test. As the Prime Minister told the CWC, India retains the right to conduct nuclear tests, just as the US reserves the right to react to an Indian test as per its laws. At the same time the US has agreed that it is committed to the “continuous operation of reactors” it may supply. In other words, it will not block India’s efforts to keep the reactor going with fuel from other sources. In that sense, the termination of the Indo-US cooperation will really mean the cessation of Indo-US cooperation, not that with the NSG. In any case there could be loopholes here too, because the Bush administration is no admirer of the Comprehensive Test Ban and would not like to hold the sword of sanctions over India should, say, China resume testing, or more piquantly, the US itself decided to resume testing.

Fallback safeguards: This has been a contentious issue between the two parties. The US Congress which is asked to cough up funds for various world bodies is worried that if the IAEA goes broke, it may suspend inspections on Indian facilities. So there were calls for “fallback” safeguards, possibly by the US itself. This is anathema to India which has since accepted the possibility that it may, in such a circumstance, provide the funds to the IAEA to carry out it’s Indian inspections !

Some larger issues:

In the July 18, 2005 agreement “ President Bush conveyed his appreciation to the Prime Minister over India's strong commitment to preventing WMD proliferation and stated that as a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology, India should acquire the same benefits and advantages as other such states.”

By and large the US has kept this promise. India is now getting the treatment that EURATOM, Japan or Switzerland get. One important aspect of the negotiations is that this has not come to India as a right. As a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), India could not demand that it be treated as a signatory. The Nuclear Suppliers Group cartel has effectively embargoed India and squeezed our programme enormously—we have more installed wind energy than nuclear energy despite huge expenditures in the nuclear front.

It is our fortune that the geopolitical trends impelled the US to lead the effort to lift the embargo. But to extrapolate that this means that we were always “right” and they were “wrong” is to miss the point. International politics is rarely about rights and wrongs. They need us geopolitically, and we need them, if we are to have a viable nuclear power programme, to provide us nuclear materials and technology. This is a fair exchange.

But many, especially the old scientists who had borne the brunt of the US embargo, allowed the bitterness to overcome rational thinking. They began to place demands that would be tantamount to the US and the NSG community eating humble pie and admitting that they had been “wrong” and India “right.”

Fortunately, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his officials realized that a “need- based” approach works better than a “rights- based” one, especially since the rest of the world doesn’t feel we have the right to anything as non-signatories to the NPT. It is this need-based approach that finally persuaded the US to give us prior-consent for reprocessing and saving the agreement. India explained that we need reprocessing rights, not only because we need plutonium to use in our fast-breeder programme, but also to take care of accumulations of spent fuel that will result from the burgeoning of large-size reactors that could come in the wake of the agreement.

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