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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Indian Politics Stall U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal

Wade Boese

Domestic political opposition has compelled India’s government to put off required negotiations with the world’s nuclear monitoring agency, miring in doubt a U.S.-Indian initiative to peel back U.S. and multilateral civil nuclear trade restrictions on India. The two governments maintain they remain committed to the effort.

The U.S.-Indian initiative has fueled impassioned debate in India, but the ruling government has stood by the July 2005 deal it struck and had confidently maintained it would see the agreement through to completion. On Oct. 15, however, a government press release stated that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had informed President George W. Bush in a telephone conversation that “certain difficulties have arisen with respect to the operationalisation of the India-U.S. civil nuclear cooperation agreement.”

Those difficulties stem from rigid opposition to the initiative by India’s Communist parties and its leftist allies, whose support Singh’s Congress Party relies on to help preserve its ruling coalition. Fervently anti-American, the Communist parties and their allies charge the initiative will render India subservient to the United States, particularly in foreign policy. They imply their support for the coalition government will end if it moves any further to bring the deal into effect. Such a revolt would risk national elections that might unseat the coalition.

The Congress Party has convened several meetings, the latest on Oct. 22, to sway the Communists and other leftists to modify their position, but to no avail. Another meeting is scheduled for Nov. 16.

After blasting the dissenters as foes to India’s development, the Congress Party recently softened its tone and appears increasingly resigned to the possibility that the initiative may whither away. Indian media reports widely quoted Singh as saying Oct. 12 that the initiative’s failure “would be a disappointment, but in life one has to live with certain disappointments.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party that is the main opposition party, also has kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism against the initiative. The BJP claims the agreement will impinge on India’s nuclear weapons program.

In an Oct. 13 BJP statement, L.K. Advani argued that, under the initiative, “there would be no Pokhrans,” referring to the test site of India’s nuclear blasts in 1974 and 1998. In power at the time, the BJP authorized the 1998 tests, which spurred Pakistan for the first time to demonstrate its nuclear capability by carrying out nuclear explosions. (See ACT, May 1998. )

India is one of three countries, Israel and Pakistan being the other two, never to have signed the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which recognizes only five states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) as possessing nuclear arms. The treaty obligates those five to work toward nuclear disarmament.

All of the NPT’s other states-parties forswear nuclear weapons. In return, they gain access to civil nuclear trade. The U.S.-Indian initiative would grant nuclear-armed India similar trade opportunities, which New Delhi claims are necessary to bolster India’s energy production and sustain its economic growth.

The BJP insinuates that the initiative is intended to pressure India toward nuclear abolition. Advani charged that Singh’s government is “jeopardizing India’s national security in the name of illusory energy security” and “assisting the United States to bring India into the NPT regime through the backdoor.”

The United States had led the world in erecting and upholding barriers to India’s participation in the global nuclear fuel and technology market because the device used in India’s 1974 explosion originated in part from Canadian and U.S. exports designated for peaceful purposes. Aiming to draw India closer to the United States, however, the Bush administration turned to ending India’s nuclear isolation.

U.S. lawmakers gave their preliminary approval, albeit with some conditions, to the administration’s new approach last December. (See ACT, January/February 2007. ) In July, the United States and India concluded an agreement specifying the terms of their potential future nuclear trade. The pact is known as a 123 agreement, after the section of the 1954 U.S. Atomic Energy Act requiring such instruments. (See ACT, September 2007. )

The next step in the process involves India concluding a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to cover nuclear facilities and materials that India declares as civilian. Safeguards are measures, such as inspections and remote monitoring, to ensure that civil nuclear programs are not used to make nuclear weapons.

India intends to maintain a military sector for building nuclear bombs that will not be subject to IAEA safeguards. Of its 22 existing or under-construction power reactors, India says eight will be kept outside of safeguards.

New Delhi has declared it wants “India-specific” safeguards without publicly explaining what that concept entails. Indications are that India wants flexibility to suspend safeguards at certain times. The U.S.-Indian 123 agreement commits India to safeguards “in perpetuity,” but it also allows India to take unspecified “corrective measures” in case of any foreign supply disruptions.

The Communist and other leftist parties have said negotiations with the IAEA would trigger their break with Singh’s government. Without an Indian-IAEA safeguards agreement, the U.S.-Indian initiative cannot move forward. Both the voluntary 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and U.S. legislators have made an Indian-IAEA safeguards agreement a prerequisite for exempting India from current nuclear trade prohibitions.

NSG members are scheduled to meet Nov. 14-16 in Vienna, and reportedly the U.S.-Indian initiative is on the agenda for discussion. The United States has circulated to certain states a draft proposal for exempting India from the group’s rule that bars most nuclear trade with countries without safeguards on their entire nuclear enterprise. Washington only has shared its proposal with those governments solidly supporting the effort. Several NSG members are critical or skeptical of the initiative.

A trio of U.S. House members, including the ranking Republican on the foreign affairs committee, introduced a nonbinding resolution Oct. 4 calling on the administration not to support an India exemption at the NSG that does not conform to U.S. law. For instance, they urged any NSG exemption duplicate a U.S. requirement that all cooperation end if India conducts another nuclear test. The resolution, which has been referred to the committee for consideration, states that an “unqualified [NSG] exemption for India” could undermine U.S. nonproliferation policy and commercial interests because India might seek out nuclear trade partners with “less stringent conditions” than the United States.

With the current political deadlock in India preventing negotiations on IAEA safeguards, no action is expected on the U.S.-Indian initiative at the Vienna meeting. Moreover, NSG decisions, which are supposed to be made by consensus, are typically reserved for an annual plenary meeting, the next of which is to be hosted by Germany in the spring. Group members, however, can hold extraordinary meetings for special purposes.

Meanwhile, U.S. legislators are waiting on the NSG to act and on completion of the safeguards agreement. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs who has served as the administration’s lead on the initiative, said earlier this year that he hoped the 123 agreement would be presented to Congress for a final vote before the end of this year.

In light of the current circumstances in India, the Bush administration has revised its timeline for potentially finalizing the initiative to 2008. Department of State spokesperson Tom Casey acknowledged to reporters Oct. 16 that “obviously, a number of things would have to occur for [the initiative] to be ultimately implemented, but it’s a long time between now and the end of 2008 and we’ll see where we are.”