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How real will be 'full civil nuclear cooperation' with US?

india Updated: Dec 09, 2006 20:32 IST
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As the India-US civil nuclear legislation becomes a law next week, the strategic community here has mostly chorused in approval except for some known critics of the deal who contend that the legislation falls short of the July 18, 2005 promise of "resumption of full civilian nuclear energy cooperation and trade" between India and the US.

"It's gone on very well. The way the text has been smoothed with many of the irritants removed shows the desire of the two countries to reach a civil nuclear agreement," Salman Haidar, a former foreign secretary said.

"It does remove many significant disabilities that resulted from India having detonated a nuclear device in 1998," he added.

Haidar, however, admitted that there were elements in the legislation that pointed to "divergences of approach", notably about the bill calling for New Delhi's full cooperation with the US in containing Iran's nuclear programme.

K Subrahmanyam, an expert who heads the government's task force on global strategic developments, said the legislation, on the whole, addressed India's concerns on most key issues, but pointed out that the real test will be the bilateral 123 agreement that will be the sole binding document that will define terms of nuclear commerce with India.

Bharat Karnad, an expert on nuclear issues, is however unsparing in his critique of the final legislation, that was voted by two chambers of the US Congress on Saturday morning, and contended that the legislation shows the US' resolve to "cap and freeze India's thermonuclear weapons programme".

"That's what they wanted all along. And that's what they have achieved through this legislation," Karnad, a vocal critic of the India-US nuclear deal told.

He also pointed to "several intrusive clauses" in the legislation that enable the US to gain an insight into India's strategic programme. "They will get into the inside of our strategic programme under the guise of promoting proliferation. Otherwise, why do they want to know the quantum of uranium mined by India every year?"

Karnad warned that there was no need to crow that some of the controversial clauses have now been moved to the non-binding section in the final legislation. "The trouble with non-binding clauses is that when the two sides sit down to negotiate the 123 agreement, they can't ignore these clauses," Karnad said.

"And don't forget that the 123 agreement will go to a Democrat-controlled Congress next year. Democrats are known for their hawkish views on non-proliferation and they will not allow India to pussyfoot around these issues," Karnad said.

He pointed out that the legislation restricted the transfer of cutting-edge technologies related to reprocessing, spent fuel and heavy water and, therefore, it did not fulfil the promise of full civilian nuclear cooperation as mandated by the July 18, 2005 nuclear agreement between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George Bush.

Most importantly, the legislation expects India to accept safeguards in perpetuity on its civilian nuclear reactors — a practice that is applicable to non-nuclear power states, Karnad said.

Haidar agreed that the legislation, in a formal sense, treats India like a non-nuclear weapon state, but added that it was because the US couldn't confer this status through a bilateral instrument. But it does remove most significant sanctions to allow India access to civilian nuclear technology and fuel, he added.

Perhaps that's why India has welcomed the enactment of the waiver authority bill cautiously and let it be known that it was not pleased with "certain extraneous and prescriptive provisions," like the linkage of continuing nuclear cooperation with New Delhi's position on the Iranian nuclear issue.

However, even as India asserts that it would only be bound by a bilateral 123 agreement, it is not yet clear whether the resumption of civilian nuclear cooperation will be full, as promised, or a partial one that cuts New Delhi's access to crucial technologies related to the fuel cycle.

Calling the passing of the legislation a "historic day in the India-US relations," the US has said that the legislation that will become law when Bush puts his signature to it Monday has met all the commitments contained in the July 18, 2005 and March 2, 2006 agreements.

The US' claims will be put to test once again when the two sides launch a third round of negotiations over the 123 agreement in January next year.

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