Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The El Baradei visit

With Congress chief Sonia Gandhi signaling her party’s determination to stay the course on the Indo-US nuclear deal, it is only a matter of time, before the government formally declares that it is negotiating with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But as of now, given the Left ultimatum on freezing action on the Indo-US nuclear deal, the government remains committed to avoiding any formal negotiations with the international body. Last week, the government denied reports that it had been given a draft safeguards agreement by the IAEA. A DAE press note did obliquely confirm that it was talking to the IAEA when it noted that it was “not holding any formal negotiations with the IAEA.” No formal negotiations with the IAEA, get it ?

But the next meeting of the UPA-Left committee has now been put to October 22. This is four days after the scheduled meeting of the CPI(M) Politburo. Is there any significance to the date. Well, for one thing, it seems to suggest that the two sides are giving one more chance to each other for reaching a compromise. Had it not been so, they would have announced a divorce right now. But then, neither of the parties are ready for elections. In fact, no one is. But, the Left has to consider the sorry state of its party unit in Kerala, and the situation in West Bengal. In the latter state, it has to contend with the possibility of a Trinamul-Congress alliance, an alienation of the Muslims (one-quarter of the state's population) brought on by the Nandigram and Rizwanur episodes, as well as the outbreak of protests against the Public Distribution System in the state. This is not a happy congruence.

So, the three day visit of International Atomic Energy Director-General Mohammed El Baradei is more likely to be an occasion to fine-tune relations between India and the international nuclear watch-dog who has been a strong and early supporter of the Indo-US nuclear deal. As it is the ostensible purpose of his visit is a technical one to speak at an energy conference, visit a nuclear research facility in Mumbai and meet with Indian nuclear officials. Sources in the government acknowledge that informal negotiations are taking place between the government and the IAEA for the nuclear safeguards agreement. But they say that this is happening in Vienna, and Dr. El Baradei is not involved in the nuts and bolts of the agreement as of now. The safeguards agreement is likely to follow the one that has been worked out for the two 1000MW reactors that India is getting from Russia at Kudankulam, so there is not that much work required for the agreement.

Last month, Indian officials held informal talks with the IAEA at the sidelines of the annual Board of Governors meeting in Vienna, but denied that it was conducting any formal negotiations. But there was enough in statements of ministers to suggest that that was indeed what was happening.

In addition to a safeguards agreement that will place eight Indian nuclear reactors under a perpetual inspection regime of the IAEA, India is committed to signing an additional protocol with the IAEA for stepped up inspections on all the sites that will be safeguarded. However, officials say that the actual timeline on the additional protocol is more open-ended. The Hyde act only requires India to have made "substantial progress" towards negotiating the additional protocol and there is no requirement to have one before the deal enters into force. (Thanks to Sid Varadarajan for this and the following)

The sequencing of the operationalsation of the Indo-US nuclear deal now is the following:

1. India negotiates text of safeguards agreement with IAEA secretariat

2. Copy of final text goes to Nuclear Suppliers Group

3. NSG changes rules

4. US Congress approves 123

5. India signs safeguards agreement with IAEA

6. Eventually an additional protocol is concluded and enters into force.

But this is the technical time-line. There is another, a political clock, that has already begun ticking towards another general election.

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