By Nilofar Suhrawardy
NEW DELHI–Though the Indo-US civil nuclear deal is viewed as a crucial landmark taking New Delhi-Washington friendship to a new height, negotiations to make the same operational are still at a sensitive phase. After being agreed to in principle in 2005, the US Congress approved of it during the lame-duck session following 18 months of tough negotiations. Now, it is to be watched as to how the deal progresses over the next few months. Of late, key Indian officials have openly expressed that unless several Indian concerns are met, the agreement, commonly referred to as the 123 agreement could fall through. This refers to amendments in Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954.
While inking its approval to the (Henry J) Hyde Act, signed by President George W. Bush last month into a law, the US Congress attached several conditions to the law. US President would be expected to end export of nuclear materials, if India tests another nuclear device. Besides, it does not guarantee uninterrupted fuel supplies for reactors and prevents India from reprocessing spent fuel.
India does not want the deal to prevent it from reprocessing spent US nuclear fuel and from conducting nuclear tests. While voicing Indiaâ€™s stand on this, Prime Ministerâ€™s Special Envoy for Indo-US nuclear deal Shyam Saran said last week (January 10) that if New Delhiâ€™s concerns are not allayed, India would walk away from the deal. â€œCan we walk away from this deal if it does not correspond to our national interest? Obviously we have to walk away from this and we will walk away from it.â€
Asserting that conditions placed by US Congress are unacceptable to India, Saran emphasized: â€œReprocessing of spent fuel will be very important, very critical. Without that it may be very difficult for us to take this forward.â€ â€œWhile we are prepared to maintain a unilateral moratorium on fresh testing, we are not prepared to convert a policy commitment into a legal commitment,â€ Saran said.
Despite such hitches, Saran voiced confidence on the deal. â€œWe have dealt with very difficult issues in the past and we have dealt with them very successfully. The mindset on both sides is of problem-solving,â€ he said.
Reiterating Indiaâ€™s stand on not accepting any legal binding on nuclear testing, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan said (January 13): â€œThere is no question of signing the [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty]. We have our voluntary moratorium. That position remains.â€
Acknowledging that India and US still need to resolve certain issues related to 123 agreement, American envoy in India David Mulford said in a television interview (January 14): â€œSome of the issues that were not entirely clear or sensitive have to be resolved within the scope of that negotiation. So, there is a situation, which is fairly delicate. But it is important to get started because time is going by.â€ When questioned specifically on two major concerns voiced by India, Mulford replied: â€œI think itâ€™s fair to say yes, reprocessing is an issue that has to be discussed and has to be worked out. But beyond that I donâ€™t think one can really gain anything by getting into the ins and outs of these issues and causing people to be concerned about things well before they have to. We have to engage on these issues and see where they take us. Likewise, the other issue mentioned, thatâ€™s an issue which I think is likely to be resolved.â€
As India and US stay engaged in resolving their differences, India has to campaign hard to secure approval of all 45 members of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to give New Delhi a â€œwaiverâ€ to allow civil nuclear cooperation on the lines laid out by US Congress. During its meeting in South Africa in April, NSG plenary will have to voice its stand on this â€œwaiver.â€ As of now, NSG is considering a focused statement on cooperation with India despite it not being a signatory to non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and despite India not accepting full-scope safeguards and not abandoning its weapons program.
Once it secures a general NSG waiver, India would have to negotiate agreements with each NSG member-state it is keen on conducting nuclear commerce with. At present, India has frameworks agreements with France and Russia, according to Saran. Japan is one of the NSG states, which retains its reservations regarding Indiaâ€™s nuclear ambitions.
Equally critical would be negotiations with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), covering Indiaâ€™s declared civil nuclear energy facilities. These would cover India-specific safeguards for 14 nuclear reactors (8 of which have to be placed under safeguards reached with IAEA).
Against this backdrop, if India and US agree to resolve differences over 123 agreement, it will go back to the US Congress. Notwithstanding the opposition voiced against the deal in certain Indian as well as American circles, there is little doubt, there is a long winding road of negotiations ahead before the Indo-US civil nuclear deal can be expected to become operational.