July is crucial for efforts to finalise the Indo-US civil nuclear deal. The US Congress is meeting for possibly its final session before Washington goes into presidential election mode.
And officials from both countries are keenly negotiating details of what should go into the 123 Agreement to operationalise bilateral nuclear collaboration.
With India conceding a key US demand and agreeing to build a dedicated reprocessing facility under full scope safeguards, differences have narrowed down. It is also likely that the US Congress may allow India the right to reprocess imported spent fuel.
India has offered a dedicated reprocessing facility with full scope safeguards for all its nuclear fuel imports, instead of its earlier insistence on safeguards 'in campaign mode' (from the time the imported fuel came in), to allay American concerns that it would divert spent fuel from its safeguarded civilian atomic power reactors. Negotiators will urge the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to impose the most stringent safeguards, to prevent clandestine diversion of spent fuel to its strategic weapons programme.
"India has a declared strategic programme," which is separate from the civilian nuclear agreement being negotiated, a high-level government source said. "There is no way we would want to use any imported fuel for those facilities. So, it is best to have this kind of facility where inspectors can account for every bit of the imported material and its spent byproducts."
The idea is to make it more difficult for countries that have clandestinely diverted nuclear fuel, like China, Pakistan and Iran.
Which is why, security experts at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) and senior government officials said, an American think-tank has published a report to supposedly highlight Pakistan's concerted efforts to build a third plutonium production reactor at Khushab but to actually highlight the Indian strategic programme and hurt the deal's prospects. What has raised hackles in India is not the content but the timing of the report and the "deliberate attempt" to bring India into the picture. The intention, the officials said, is clearly to "stymie the India-US civil nuclear deal" at a stage when talks on the 123 Agreement are at a crucial stage.
Large portions of the June 21 report by David Albright and Paul Brannan of the Institute for Science and International Security deal with India, the officials said.
It highlights the nuclear deal, saying: "The Bush administration continues to minimise the risks of Indian and Pakistani arsenals as it seeks to conclude an unprecedented nuclear cooperation agreement with India and maintain the war on terror in Pakistan and Afghanistan."
"Recent debate on the US-India peaceful nuclear agreement," the report says, "has highlighted India's desire to maintain a massive plutonium production capability that can add to an already large stock of weapons plutonium."
Albright, a former United Nations nuclear inspector, is part of the "non-proliferation Ayatollahs" in Washington who do not want the deal to go through. G Balachandran, a strategic affairs consultant with IDSA, said he would not give Albright's report much credence. "He's crying wolf so often, it has long been factored into both Indian and US calculations," he said.
He said there was little logic to the report's claim that "the recent activity at Khushab and Chashma (nuclear sites in Pakistan where the heavy water plutonium production reactors and plutonium separation facilities are based) should be viewed as a sign of an accelerated nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan."
"The suggestion of an arms race between India and Pakistan is a non sequitur (illogical conclusion)," former IDSA director K Santhanam said. "Why is India being dragged in?"