Reading US Senate proceedings may not be as entertaining as Stella Rimington’s At Risk, “a cracking good thriller”, as the Observer put it. But those interested in the US-India nuclear deal should take the trouble of going through the 50-odd pages of Congressional record. It is only this that clearly shows that the debate was about protecting and strengthening US security interests. Largesse to India is meant to be only incidental and granted under strict ground rules. Disagreement during the debate was accepted and not construed as being anti-American. Incidentally, many of the prominent Democrats voted for the ‘killer amendments’.
Senator Lugar, introducing the Bill, commented that under the administration’s original plan, the agreement would have come into force within 90 days unless both the Houses of Congress voted against it with such a majority that a presidential veto would not have been possible.
Senator Biden, opening the discussion, said that the US administration had suggested to Congress that the July 18, 2005, Indo-US agreement could be treated as having met the requirements of Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act. A horrified Congress disagreed not just in an assertion of ‘turf’ but because Congressional oversight “protects the balance of power, the separation of power, which is essential in the formulation of a policy”. Obviously, the White House had miscalculated the mood of the Congress, which was smarting for having been misled into supporting the catastrophic war on Iraq, which cost American lives, for non-existent WMDs.
Senators Kennedy and Clinton made it more apparent that the debate was about nuclear non-proliferation, curbing India’s ability to make weapons and diverting uranium — and not about civil nuclear energy. Kennedy was not willing to believe that the agreement would enable India to cease production of fissile material. He said he would support the agreement if it could be shown that India would take steps to become a full-fledged member of the non-proliferation community and agree to cut off production of fissile material. Kennedy was particularly upset with the “White House’s decision to withhold until after the vote on the Iraq war, North Korea’s admission about its nuclear weapons programme” and other similar omissions.
Senator Barak Obama’s questions and the replies Lugar gave him illustrate the fears US legislators have about the agreement.
Obama: Is it the managers’ belief that Section 129 of the AEA will apply prospectively to India?
Lugar: …the full force of Section 129 would apply to any detonation of a nuclear explosive device, any termination of IAEA safeguards by India and material violation of IAEA safeguards …
Obama: …in the event of a future nuclear test by the Government of India, nuclear power reactor fuel and equipment sales and nuclear cooperation would cease … and the US would have the right to demand the return of nuclear supplies?
Lugar: Yes… the United States shall have the right to request the return of the supplies as you have stipulated.
Obama: Is it your understanding that providing a fuel reserve to India is not intended to facilitate a resumption in nuclear testing?
Lugar: Yes, I hope that would be the case.
Throughout the debate those opposing and supporting the agreement refer to nuclear weapons and fissile material restrictions. Very few spoke of civilian nuclear energy for India. While supporting the agreement, Senator Voinovich said that by expanding civil nuclear cooperation with India, the US has an opportunity to bring India into an arms control regime that will guarantee greater oversight and inspection rights.
The general fear was that uranium supplied to India would enable India to divert its own uranium for nuclear weapons manufacture. At least two senators cited an article in the Times of India of December 12, 2005, suggesting that India should declare as many power reactors as civilian ones which would use imported fuel as this would enable conservation of “our native uranium for weapons grade plutonium production”. This article was written by K Subrahmanyam, clearly an example of overstating one’s case.
Section 108, for instance, lists out innumerable steps to be taken for the implementation and compliance of the agreement. The US President has to keep Congress fully and currently informed of any material violation by India on non-compliance under the July 18, 2005 agreement, the separation plan presented by India on March 7 and May 11, 2006, the safeguards agreement between India and the IAEA and so on. The lengthy list mentions uranium production figures, including the amount assigned for weapon production, US efforts to promote national or regional progress by India in disclosing, securing, capping, and reducing its fissile material stockpiles. Either this will be a formality where the US administration will fudge figures to keep Congress happy or there will be a serious effort that would need a concerted intelligence effort in India requiring Indian participation.
It is with this intention that Section 115 was quietly introduced and passed without debate. This section empowers the US Secretary of Energy, acting through the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), to establish a cooperative threat reduction programme jointly pursued by scientists from India and the US to strengthen non-proliferation goals. It can be argued that this is a necessary scientific venture and non-proliferation is something India believes in without signing the NPT. Therefore, one need not see any devils in this.
One might first want to have a look at what the NNSA is capable of doing. Established in 2000 as a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy, the NNSA’s aims are to maintain the US nuclear deterrent, protect and revitalise the weapons complex, respond to nuclear emergencies world-wide, support the nuclear navy, develop space and land-based detection systems, secure and eliminate nuclear materials and strengthen the non-proliferation regime. It has a multi-billion dollar budget with an intelligence and counter-intelligence component.
Among its many global achievements, the NNSA has had a robust programme with Russia and claims to have secured over 80 per cent of Russian nuclear weapons storage sites, improved security at all 39 Russian navy and 14 Russian strategic rocket forces sites. The NNSA is simultaneously responsible for enhancing and achieving an 18-month underground nuclear test readiness within the next decade for the US while reducing the threat from other sources to the US. The NNSA will be the means for intrusive verifications in India to enable the US President to give his certifications. Indian counterparts would surely be from our DAE and given our experience with the joint task force of cyber security, it would be a very wary India that would step into such an arrangement.
It can doubtless be argued that all this is so far only proposed US law and there has to be reconciliation, enactment and then a treaty to be signed. Much of it could get diluted to bring it on par with the July 18 accord. Maybe that will happen but the underlying message from the US Congress is that the July 18 agreement is not so much about civil nuclear energy as it is about getting India into the NPT regime through the back door.
Given a weakened President desperately looking for a foreign policy success, given the distrust Congress has for the administration, given that the US is unable to hold its sway even in its own backyard, it is doubtful if Congress will allow a final Bill that will be very much different. It would be wise to carefully assess all our options next year.
Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing