Indo-US Nuclear Deal: In the Doldrums

By all accounts the current status of the most important foreign policy initiative jointly taken by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, is that it is on the rocks. Under Secretary Nick Burns has been sharply critical of the slow rate of progress of the negotiations on the 123 Agreement that India must conclude with the United States. Other US commentators have questioned India’s go-slow attitude in talks with the Nuclear Suppliers Group for a waiver and with the IAEA to conclude an additional protocol for the civilian nuclear facilities that India has voluntarily agreed to place under full-scope international safeguards. 
The general assumption that is gaining currency and is going unchallenged is that India has begun to ask for too much. In an article in USA Today on April 12, 2007, Barbara Slavin quoted Henry Sokolski, head of the Non-proliferation Policy Education Centre, a Washington think tank devoted to nuclear issues, as having said, "The Indians are being greedy." The reality is much different. India has high stakes in this deal, is asking for nothing more than what has already been agreed upon in the July 18, 2005 agreement and is eager to see it through to final implementation before the US goes into election mode in 2007. India’s Foreign Secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, will be in Washington D.C. this week to break the logjam and put the deal on the fast track again.
The first major issue of disagreement is India's opposition to including a clause in the 123 Agreement being negotiated with the US Administration to the effect that India will permanently abjure from further nuclear tests. India voluntarily renounced nuclear tests after the Pokhran tests in May 1998. This unilateral commitment was reiterated in the July 18, 2005 agreement signed between President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. India cannot accept a de jure commitment as it has direct repercussions for India 's national security. In case China or Pakistan conduct nuclear tests sometime in the future and India considers it necessary to also do so in its national security interests, a de jure commitment made to the US will deny India such an option. 
It is a sovereign right critical to India 's national security interest and, hence, India cannot give it up. Also, there is a very strong political consensus on this issue in India and no Indian government can sign away this right and hope to survive in office – certainly not a shaky coalition government whose three years in office have been marked by internal dissension instigated primarily by the communist parties that are supporting the government from outside. Indian policy planners and members of the strategic community hope that despite the rhetoric now surrounding the deal, the Administration and US lawmakers will see the wisdom of not tying India down to a position from which it cannot extricate itself. Serious arm-twisting on this issue has the potential to act as a deal breaker. 
On the issue of advanced American technology for uranium enrichment and reprocessing rights, the Indian position is that under the July 18, 2005 agreement, the US is required to extend "full" civil nuclear cooperation to India. The Indian understanding of the word full is that it includes both enrichment technology and reprocessing rights. Since enrichment and reprocessing will be carried out under full-scope international safeguards, there should be no question of India diverting the products to military applications. India has sufficient quantities of weapons-grade plutonium for its credible minimum deterrence and does not need to violate an international treaty to stockpile more fissile material. Compared with some leading proliferators like China and Pakistan, India 's past record on non-proliferation should inspire sufficient confidence among US lawmakers that India will adhere to its commitments in letter and spirit. 
A third contentious issue is ambiguity about guaranteed fuel supplies to India in case the US again reneges on its commitment as it did in the case of the Tarapore nuclear power plant a few decades ago. At that time the US had backed out of a bilateral treaty with India to supply nuclear fuel to the Tarapore power plant on account of a change in its domestic laws. It is not so well known that India has stood by its commitments even though the US walked out of the deal. India could have reprocessed the spent fuel that the US refused to take back once the deal was no longer operative but voluntarily elected not to do so. It should be easy to see why many Indians still look at the US as an unreliable partner. India is also looking for clarity on the disposal of spent uranium fuel that will be supplied in future as huge stocks have already piled up. However, these two issues are unlikely to be deal breakers. 
As a meaningful strategic partner the least that India expects is to be treated at par with the way the US treats Japan and the European Union. If India is to be coerced into a de jure commitment to irrevocably abjure further nuclear tests or is to be denied enrichment and reprocessing technologies, the Indo-US Nuclear deal will certainly fall by the wayside. These two issues are non-negotiable and will remain so. If that happens, President Bush will see a major foreign policy initiative crumble due to the unwillingness of his bureaucracy to be creative and forward looking.
Gurmeet Kanwal - The author is Senior Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.