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Understanding the nuke deal

I would argue that the biggest problem lies beyond the Senate and the House. It lies in US policy and with the US President, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Nov 25, 2006 23:53 IST

This week I want to be serious. The subject I intend to write about is the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. I realise a lot has already been said but, oddly enough, that’s why I’m taking it up. The more I research the matter the more I find that comment on it is either frequently misleading or sometimes downright wrong.

The nub of what I want to assert is this: the real problem with the Indo-US Nuclear Deal does not lie in the different versions of the bill passed by the House or the Senate, or how they will be reconciled, but in the 123 Agreement India has to sign with America to formalise the proposed civil nuclear relationship.

Ironically, the problem here is at least as much of America’s doing as it is of our own making.

First, there’s no doubt there are several areas of concern in the two versions of the Bill awaiting reconciliation. Around eight of them are considered significant. Some, like the clauses on relations with Iran, on the consequences of further nuclear tests and on discouraging the NSG from supplying nuclear fuel if America were to stop, are common to both. It’s a moot point whether they will be removed at the reconciliation stage although the Bush Administration is pushing for that to happen. But if it survives, the Iran clause would be politically offensive whilst the NSG clause would be a deal breaker.

However, I would argue that the biggest problem lies beyond the Senate and the House. It lies in US policy. And that means it lies with George W Bush himself. Although there’s no law against it, by custom and practice US administrations have both declined to export enrichment, re-processing and heavy water technologies as well as grant the right to re-process US origin nuclear fuel.

This policy applies to all countries, including members of the NSG and even recognised nuclear powers. The question is can India obtain a waiver from the Bush Administration to ensure it won’t apply to us?

Of the two, India can, at a practical level, live without enrichment, re-processing and heavy water technologies. Most analysts argue that we either already have them or can acquire them from the British, the French and the Russians. So their denial would be a political problem but not a setback in practice.

Not so in the case of the right to re-process.

Without this the fuel India acquires would have to be stored in perpetuity. Not only would this be cumbersome and take up ever-increasing capacity but also dangerous. It could fall into the wrong hands.

The irony is that this problem has been exacerbated by our handling of it. Instead of finding a way around it, we’ve inadvertently converted it into a sticking point.

For a start, India has always known that US policy would be an obstacle. More importantly, on 3 August, John Rood, Assistant Secretary of State for Security and Non-Proliferation, at his nomination hearing, publicly reiterated US policy on both technology sales and re-processing rights.

Analysts however believe India could end up with re-processing rights but is unlikely to be given the technologies.

Yet two weeks after John Rood, Dr Manmohan Singh, speaking in the Rajya Sabha on 17 August, staked the success of the Indo-US deal on obtaining access to the same technologies. This is what he said: “We seek the removal of restrictions on all aspects of cooperation and technology transfers pertaining to civil nuclear energy — ranging from nuclear fuel, nuclear reactors, to re-processing spent fuel i.e. all aspects of a complete nuclear fuel cycle... We will not agree to any dilution that would prevent us from securing the benefits of full civil nuclear cooperation.” And, unfortunately, it was as blunt as that.

This means that from 17 August, the Indian position and US policy have been in apparent conflict.

The issue now is can the Prime Minister finesse his own words by claiming the rights we may get are sufficient? In practice they will be, but will politicians — and the Left in particular — accept this? If they do the deal should be through.

But if they don’t, who will the blame lie with? With Washington, for a policy we’ve always known about and do not necessarily need a waiver from, or the PM, for inadvertently or unadvisedly raising the stakes albeit under domestic pressure? Or the Left for foolishly putting that pressure?