Foreign Secretary Shivshanker Menon is travelling to Washington on Sunday for what is being billed as a "make or break" round of negotiations on the ‘123 Agreement’ to operationalise the Indo-US nuclear deal.
"All the underbrush has been cleared and the issues are now on the table," says an official involved in several previous rounds of negotiations. Since the talks, on April 30 and May 1, are at a sensitive phase, the official requested he not be named.
Asked if the deal was "in trouble", all he would say was "the agreement remains to be clinched." He said large chunks of the draft remained as "bracketed text" - diplomatese for formulations on which there was not yet common agreement - a great deal of hard work remained around three key issues.
First, the scope of the cooperation; second the linkage between the promise of ‘in perpetuity’ supply of fuel for reactors, in exchange for ‘in perpetuity’ safeguards required to be placed on Indian civilian reactors; and third, the consequences of India conducting more nuclear tests.
"If you solve these three heads, all the other pieces will fall into place," the official observed. Another senior insider told Hindustan T imes that while on July 18, 2005, President George W Bush agreed to treat India as a de facto nuclear weapons state, key US negotiators did not want to accept the consequences of the commitment. On the other hand, he conceded there were people on the Indian side who wanted the US to treat India as a de jure nuclear weapons state.
Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, accepted by most countries, only countries that tested nuclear weapons before January 1, 1967 are designated nuclear weapon states. India conducted its tests in May 1998. India is not a signatory to the NPT, and hence the subject of a global embargo on nuclear material and equipment.
Officials acknowledge that demands from the Indian side are being seen by the US as tantamount to violating or requiring further change of their law. G Balachandran, visiting fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis says, "what can’t be said (in the 123 Agreement) is what is explicitly against the law, so the best strategy here is to leave things vague where you can."
The official associated with the negotiations said, "instead of raising alarms designed to create hurdles" there was need to think through the demands. "Do we really want US reprocessing and enrichment technology?" he asked. He said the US does not transfer such technology, but if it does, "it will come with such intrusive inspections that you may live to regret it."
What if the negotiations fail? The civil nuclear programme need not be automatically affected, said Balachandran. "But it will mean everything then hinges on the fast breeder programe. If the reactor does not work at the efficiencies hoped for, then we will be stuck at 10,000 MW (nuclear capacity) forever," he warned.
The significance of this warning is underscored by a report of the Standing Committee of Parliament on Science and Technology tabled on Thursday, which noted that "the evolution of each stage (of India’s ambitious 3-stage nuclear power programme) is dependent on the fissile material availability from the previous stage."
If for some reason the first stage currently underway, or the second Fast Breeder reactor phase, is not able to produce the required fissile material the final thorium reactor stage which is supposed to provide the country energy security will not be attainable.