To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the Indo-US nuclear deal’s death appear to be greatly exaggerated. Were that the case, we would not have been witnessing the intense, and almost continuous round of negotiations that have been taking place between officials of the two countries for the past three months. Yet, it’s clear that trying to arrive at an acceptable 123 Agreement to operationalise the Indo-US nuclear deal is not an easy task, given the enormous emotion that has been invested on it by supporters and opponents of the deal, both in India and the United. States.
Speaking at the end of February about the negotiations, US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns promised that “as good diplomats, we will square the circle.” Squaring circles and doubling cubes are metaphors of impossibility. But, as Burns implied, a problem without solution in the world of mathematics or logic, may have a different outcome in the world of diplomacy.
Certainly, Burns and his Indian counterparts need all the ingenuity they can muster to provide legal language for an essentially political agreement, that too in a field where US domestic law has over the years created a minefield of laws and restrictions. The big one here is not fuel supply assurances or the right to reprocess spent fuel—it is that of detonating a nuclear device again. The Hyde Act has provided a waiver to India on the issue of past nuclear tests, but the US is not willing to give an advance waiver for any future test that India may carry out. Whether or not India wants to test nuclear weapons again is our sovereign decision, but by that measure we cannot expect the US to forgo their sovereign right to react the way they choose. New Delhi’s approach seems to be to try and account for every possible contingency in the 123 Agreement, something that may not be either feasible or desirable. The way out is to accept the waivers available, and leave for the future, what truly belongs to the future.