New Delhi cannot afford complacency despite the seeming ease with which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reached a consensus on approving the agreement on safeguarding India’s civilian nuclear reactors. The agreement is the easiest of the last steps left before the international community approves the tenets of the Indo-US nuclear deal — and the exception to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that it grants India. The IAEA debate indicated that dissent against exempting India came in three forms. The most clownish was from countries like Iran and Egypt that saw in all this an advantage for Israel. The most hypocritical — given their roles in nuclear black-marketing —— were the Pakistani and Chinese demands that the former be given the same special N-status. The third group were hardline non-proliferationists like Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Norway and New Zealand. The latter will be almost the sole problem in the coming Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) debate. Neither the anti-Israeli countries nor Pakistan are NSG members.
If the NSG members agree to align their policies with those of the US, India can access nuclear technology and fuel from any country. While noises were made about the difference between an ‘unconditional’ versus ‘clean’ NSG exemption for India, closer examination makes it clear that these two words are synonymous. The real issue is what will be needed to assuage the concerns of the hardcore anti-nuclear group. The IAEA’s Mohammed El Baradei has put forward the strongest case for India from a non-proliferation perspective: India as a nuclear club member strengthens the regime more than it weakens it. Then there is India’s own historical support for disarmament and avoidance of nuclear rogue activity.
But New Delhi should not refrain from warning these countries that any attempt to scupper the NSG exemption would take a toll on bilateral relations. Even small post-modern nations must adapt to a world order that is changing both in economic and nuclear terms.