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INDIA/US: Suppliers' Group Stalls Nuclear Deal

Analysis by Praful Bidwai*

NEW DELHI, Aug 22 2008 (IPS) - Dashing hopes that the United States-India nuclear cooperation deal would sail through the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG), a two-day meeting in Vienna of the 45-nation association has failed to produce a consensus on a U.S. drafted text.

A major nuclear research facility at Trombay, western India. Credit: Department of Atomic Energy, India

A major nuclear research facility at Trombay, western India. Credit: Department of Atomic Energy, India

The deal cannot be finalised unless the group grants India a special exemption from its nuclear commerce rules and allows the export of nuclear fuel and civilian nuclear technology to India. Under the rules, no nuclear trade can take place with a country that has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and yet possesses nuclear weapons, a description that fits India.

The NSG has informally agreed to meet again on Sep. 4 and 5. But it will do so to discuss a new text which takes into account some of the numerous suggestions and amendments moved by several members at the Vienna meeting.

This is a significant setback to the prospect for the controversial deal's completion before the U.S. Congress adjourns on Sep. 26 prior to elections in November. Without Congressional ratification of a bilateral agreement signed with India under the deal, called the "123 agreement", the deal cannot go through.

The U.S. government still hopes to present the 123 agreement to Congress when it resumes it session on Sep. 8 with a busy schedule, but the time-line is now looking extremely tight.

Indian officials had hoped that no more than a handful of countries would raise objections to the American text at the NSG meeting in Vienna.

But at least 15-20, and according to one report, as many as almost half, of NSG members moved amendments and suggestions, which seek to promote the objective of nuclear non-proliferation while granting India the exemption the U.S. a seeking on its behalf.

Even more important, New Zealand's disarmament minister Phil Goff has disclosed that eight nations -Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, besides his own country- are now working in concert in pushing amendments to the U.S. draft.

The amendments broadly fall into three categories. The first suggestion calls for a periodic review by the NSG of India's compliance with its commitments to non-proliferation and tight restrictions on nuclear exports.

The second seeks to explicitly exclude the technologies of uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent fuel from what can be exported to India.

And the third says that nuclear trade with India must cease if India conducts a nuclear test.

"India will find all such conditions unpalatable," says Prof. Achin Vanaik, who teaches international relations and global politics at Delhi University. "Indeed, India made a big fuss about a paragraph the United States had inserted in the original text calling for India's eventual adherence to 'fullscope' safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It succeeded in getting that paragraph removed before the text was circulated amongst NSG members."

Adds Vanaik: "India can possibly live with the condition for a periodic review, although even this will be difficult for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to sell to the domestic political opposition. But it will be well-nigh impossible for India to accept the other two conditions."

Singh has repeatedly assured India's Parliament that the deal does not and cannot prevent India from conducting a nuclear test if that is considered absolutely essential, and that India will not compromise on its sovereign right to do so as the price to be paid for the deal

Even on the issue of exclusion of enrichment and reprocessing technologies, the Indian position is that the U.S. must adhere to its commitment to have full-scale civilian nuclear cooperation with India.

It is by no means clear that the proposed NSG meeting in two weeks' time can reconcile differences over such conditions, and grant India the "clean and unconditional" waiver that it seeks from NSG rules.

U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that India should expect a clean waiver, but not an unconditional one.

Prime Minister Singh, who has staked his political reputation on the nuclear deal, and who forced India’s communist parties to withdraw support to his United Progressive Alliance government, would find it difficult to agree to any conditions, especially substantive ones.

And if the deal does not go through before Singh and President George W. Bush complete their respective terms, it cannot be renegotiated under the favourable conditions that prevail today in domestic U.S. politics.

The discussions at Vienna have encouraged arms control and disarmament groups to make a strong appeal to NSG members, calling on them to push for conditions that would promote the objectives of nuclear non-proliferation.

Says Darryl F. Kimball of the Arms Control Association: "At this point, we can expect that Washington and New Delhi will try to wordsmith the proposals to restrict and condition nuclear trade with India to the point of being meaningless and force a decision at the next NSG meeting… In response, responsible NSG states should insist on guidelines relating to India that are clear and unambiguous. And given that the NSG participant states' actions on this issue will have an impact for decades to come, they should not rush to judgment."

Adds Kimball: "At a minimum, the NSG must make clear that nuclear trade with India shall be terminated if it resumes testing for any reason. If India cannot agree to such terms, it suggests that India is not serious about its nuclear test moratorium pledge."

What happens to the deal will now depend on the furious lobbying and strong-arm tactics that the U.S. is likely to use with key NSG members. India will also mount pressure on them to support an unconditional waiver in the NSG or face the prospect of losing India's growing market

"One thing is clear," says M.V. Ramana, senior fellow at the Institute for Social and Economic Change in the southern city of Bangalore. "The states which raised objections and moved amendments in Vienna are likely to feel strengthened, especially because eight of them have come together. If they refuse to compromise by succumbing to U.S. pressure and Indian embellishments, they could succeed in blocking the deal."

(*IPS correspondent Praful Bidwai is a noted commentator and author on nuclear disarmament issues and peace activist.)

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