Thursday, September 20, 2007

Nuclear deal: Future tense, but the show goes on

This post has been revised on September 22

You can already see the nods and winks going on between New Delhi and Washington, as well as the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. While no one is saying anything officially, and taking care not to show any further “operationalisation” of the Indo-US nuclear deal, there is clearly action taking place behind the scenes. The government is compelled to act as it does because the Left, particularly the CPI(M) seems determined to scuttle it. Writing in Hindustan Times, Nilova Roy Chaudhury says that the government is determined to wind up the IAEA negotiations by October and seek the NSG waiver thereafter.

After agreeing to be part of a committee that would discuss the Left’s concern, Mr. Prakash Karat, the CPI(M) General Secretary undercut that position by declaring at a public rally in New Delhi on September 18 that the government now postpone action on the deal for six months “Otherwise, there would be a political crisis in the country. We do not want that.” This is a “too clever by half” kind of a statement designed to scuttle the deal, and it is unlikely to wash.

There are two time-lines at work on the nuclear deal-- one is a technical one, and the other political. A senior official familiar with the negotiations told me last week that India will have to meet these two objectives in the coming month or two “because President Bush is unlikely to have any power to influence Congress beyond February or March this year”. Otherwise the process to spill over into next summer, which in effect means 2009-- since 2008 is a Presidential Election year in the US. This would put the entire deal in a limbo, the more likely scenario is that the two countries will seek to push ahead within this year. This is likely to be the subject of the expected meeting between External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherji and his US counterpart Condeleezza Rice later this month on the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York.

The technical time-line requires India to negotiate its India specific additional protocol and safeguards agreement with the IAEA. While India would be working on existing templates on both agreements, there are key differences that require extensive negotiations. The IAEA has an additional protocol in its books since 1997, but this relates to tightening inspection procedures for non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS). In other words the IAEA procedures relate to preventing NNWS from making nuclear weapons. But India already has nuclear weapons, and the US has accepted this and so the India-specific agreement has to reflect this. The safeguards agreement will be easier and can be based on the agreement that India has signed with the IAEA for the two Koodankulam reactors being built with Russian help.

Only when India has these two agreements can it go the NSG and request a rule change. According to an official, the procedure here could be “a simple line added to the existing guidelines or it could be a more complicated agreement.” He said that it was difficult to predict how the 45-nation body will respond to India’s request for an unconditional exception to its rule barring trade with countries that have not signed the NPT. India can negotiate behind the scenes with the IAEA and NSG, but at some point it must arrive at an open agreement with them. And that is the point the political time-line kicks in. As per the agreement, it is the US that has to get India the exemption from the NSG, so India need not directly interface with the cartel till the very end. On Friday (September 21) the US briefed 100 officials from 33 member countries. Richard Stratford, Director at the Office of Nuclear Energy Affairs in the US State Department told Press Trust of India "We are also putting forth India's case for clean, unconditional exemption and we are trying hard on that."

At any sign that New Delhi is negotiating with the IAEA or NSG on the nuclear deal, the 60-member Left group is committed to withdrawing its support from the UPA government leaving it with a minority in the Lok Sabha. The government may not fall immediately, but its days would be numbered, with both the Left and the Congress party seeking to maneuver themselves into an advantageous position vis-à-vis the General Election that will follow. But now there seems to be some rethinking going on in the CPI(M). The enigmatic statements of 94-year old Jyoti Basu seems to suggest that the party will climb down after the meeting of its politburo and the central committee at the end of the month in Kolkata.

After reaching agreement with the US on the “123 Agreement” New Delhi was to work out a safeguards agreement and an India-specific additional protocol with the IAEA, and thereafter obtain the approval of the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group to amend its guidelines to permit nuclear trading with India. After these benchmarks are reached, the US Congress would again take a “yes” or “no” vote to make the deal operational.

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