Nuclear deal - Vienna has reservations

21 December 2007
NEW DELHI, Dec 21 (IPS) - As the window of opportunity to complete the United States-India nuclear cooperation deal narrows, the agreement seems to be running into problems with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based United Nations body dealing with nuclear matters. The deal already faces stiff domestic opposition. Indian negotiators have returned from Vienna after a second round of talks with the IAEA secretariat without clinching an agreement on an arrangement for special inspections of India's civilian nuclear facilities, says an Indian official on condition that he not be named. The problems pertain to accommodating India's insistence on guarantees of "uninterrupted" supplies of nuclear fuel and equipment either in the main text of the agreement under negotiation, or in its preamble. Under the deal, New Delhi will sign an "India-specific" safeguards (inspections) agreement with the IAEA, as well as a tougher agreement called an "Additional Protocol" complementing it. And the Agency's board of governors must approve these. Only then can the deal be presented to the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) which can exempt India from its long-standing guidelines which require full-scope IAEA safeguards, which India refuses. NSG exemption is a necessary condition for the supply of fuel, reactors and other equipment to India's civilian nuclear programme. A safeguards agreement with the IAEA is also a prerequisite for approval by the U.S. Congress of a bilateral agreement with India signed this past July. The deal cannot be finalised and implemented unless the requisite agreements between India and the IAEA are reached, the NSG’s exemption is obtained, and the whole arrangement is ratified by the U.S. Congress. U.S. and Indian government leaders had hoped that the safeguards agreement and the Additional Protocol would be signed with the IAEA secretariat by the end of December so that a special session of the board of governors can be summoned in January, in advance of its regular meeting in March. If and when the IAEA board’s approval is obtained, the U.S. would take the deal to the NSG (India is not a member) and secure exemption for India from its guidelines—barely in time for a vote in the U.S. Congress before the election agenda overwhelms America's domestic politics and President George W Bush’s authority fades out. "The entire timetable may go awry unless the next round of talks with the IAEA is held very soon and results in a satisfactory agreement," says the Indian official. "If the deal cannot be sent to the U.S. Congress by, say, the end of February or very early March, then it may well be lost, at least for some time. Without Bush’s strong push for the deal, it's unlikely to overcome opposition from non-proliferation advocates and from the Democrats in Congress." U.S. ambassador to India David C Mulford has repeatedly warned that "time is of the essence". He recently met India’s foreign secretary (chief diplomat) Shiv Shankar Menon to review progress in the Vienna talks. The Indian government is pressing its officials to expedite an agreement with the IAEA. Barely a week ago, Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar said that the Vienna talks had been put on fast track: "We are doing our best and trying to complete the process as soon as possible, but everything has to be done satisfactorily as the negotiations are comprehensive and complex." To speed up the safeguards negotiations with the IAEA, India might find it expedient and easier to put the "India-specific" elements of the agreement into a preamble or some other non-operative section. These elements apparently pertain to guarantees of uninterrupted nuclear supplies, and to India's "right" to build a strategic reserve of nuclear fuel to tide over shortages or disruptions in imported fuel supplies. Although Indian officials have repeatedly said that they would negotiate an "India-specific" safeguards agreement with the IAEA, they have not elaborated on what it would actually contain and how it might depart from standard IAEA safeguards models. The IAEA has a standard site-specific protocol, called INFCIRC.66 (IAEA Information Circular 66), for countries that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But many experts do not consider this adequate in the Indian case, unless it is beefed up by a tough Additional Protocol to ensure that there would be no diversion of materials from the civilian to the military programme. In July 2005, India committed itself to signing such a protocol with the IAEA. Indian officials cite the U.S.-India bilateral agreement of July (known as the "123 agreement" because it relates to section 123 of the US atomic energy act of 1974), which says: " India-specific safeguards agreement will be negotiated between India and the IAEA providing for safeguards to guard against withdrawal of safeguarded nuclear material from civilian use at any time as well as providing for corrective measures that India may take to ensure uninterrupted operation of its civilian nuclear reactors in the event of disruption of foreign fuel supplies." If this is interpreted to mean that the operative part of the safeguards agreement would grant India the right to withdraw material or facilities from IAEA safeguards in the event of an interruption in fuel supplies, it is certain to invite objections from non-proliferation advocates. Practically, such interruption would take place if India conducts a nuclear weapons test, which would create an uproar internationally. Some IAEA governors might agree with this interpretation and raise objections to the safeguards agreement in the 35-member board, pointing to Article I of the NPT, which prohibits direct assistance to any state in building nuclear weapons. A far easier option, and one which would help wind up the talks in Vienna quickly, would be to put the controversial passages in the preamble to the main text. "But that won’t go down well with the domestic opposition," says Achin Vanaik, professor of international relations and global politics at Delhi University. "The opposition will demand ironclad guarantees in keeping with the assurances offered by the government to the Indian Parliament both last year and in its recently concluded session." An additional protocol might pose even tougher problems. There are three standard versions of this: one for nuclear weapons-states which are parties to the NPT; a second one for non-nuclear weapon states which are NPT signatories; and a third for others India would of course like to negotiate a protocol of the third kind, but as close to the first version as possible. But this might raise objections from NSG members because India is not an NPT signatory. Since the NSG takes its decisions by consensus, even one of its 45 members can attach conditions to the deal. And India has publicly declared a number of times that it wants a clean, unconditional exemption from the NSG. This might kill the deal, or delay it to a point where it faces hostile political conditions in the U.S. -- for instance, under a Democrat president. The deal’s supporters had thought it would go through the IAEA and the NSG like a shot. That is certainly not happening in the IAEA. As for the NSG, some of its members are likely to feel encouraged to object to the deal in the knowledge that it faces strong opposition domestically. Whether or not the Indian government pushes through the deal in the teeth of opposition will depend partly on the results of the crucial assembly elections in Gujarat, to be announced on Sunday, but widely expected to return the right-wing, ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in the major western province .
Praful Bidwai, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator. He is a co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of ‘New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament’.