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Moving into high gear, but standing still

It is important to ask what were the motives for Berman’s release of the letter and China’s outburst just before the NSG is holding its final debate on bringing India into the nuclear club.

india Updated: Sep 04, 2008 21:28 IST

There is no better evidence of how close India is to ending 40 years of nuclear sanctions than the letter issued by US Congressman Howard Berman and the earlier criticism of the Indo-US nuclear deal in the People’s Daily. It is important to ask what were the motives for Berman’s release of the letter and China’s outburst just before the Nuclear Suppliers Group is holding its final debate on bringing India into the nuclear club.

Berman, a long-standing critic of the nuclear deal, has an obvious motive. The US was always expected to have more conditions attached to its nuclear cooperation with India than the NSG. Berman’s goal was to excite the handful of NSG holdout nations into insisting that the US conditionalities should be globalised. Beijing, which has long waged a quiet diplomatic campaign against the nuclear deal, may have sought to stiffen the spine of the holdout countries, many of whom have begun to seek a compromise.

The reaction to the Berman letter has only obscured the much larger endgame being played out at the NSG. The debate over the letter is over whether the conditionalities the US imposed on India were excessive. This is irrelevant if New Delhi does not buy nuclear reactors or fuel from the US. The new NSG guideline draft is bereft of these conditions and will mean India can tender nuclear contracts to countries demanding the least strings — most likely France or Russia.

The Berman letter says little that is not already in the Hyde Act and the 123 Agreement. The US always had the right to cut off nuclear cooperation if India carried out a nuclear test, New Delhi had merely insisted a future US president have policy options other than a cutoff. This is unchanged by anything in the letter. The Hyde Act’s loophole for enrichment and reprocessing technology is also iterated. Ultimately, this is a small eddy amid a much larger sea-change taking shape in Vienna. The hysteria over Berman’s letter and the silence at the lack of conditions in the new NSG draft is a statement of how few understand what the nuclear deal is really about.