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Snakes in non - proliferation pit

It may be a diplomatic bridge too far. When US Ambassador David Mulford warned that a vote in favour of Iran?s nuclear misdeeds in February would deep-six the Indo-US nuclear deal, he was being diplomatically incorrect but analytically honest.

india Updated: Jan 29, 2006 02:39 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

It may be a diplomatic bridge too far. When US Ambassador David Mulford warned that a vote in favour of Iran’s nuclear misdeeds in February would deep-six the Indo-US nuclear deal, he was being diplomatically incorrect but analytically honest.

While he was rightly assailed in India, none of his critics really bothered to understand what Mulford was saying. Almost everyone involved in the deal believes how India votes in February won’t matter a jot to President George W. Bush: He’ll still back the deal. The point is that a ballot for Tehran will make it impossible for Bush to muster the congressional votes to make the deal law.

On this hangs a tale.

RUSH JOB: When Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh crafted the Indo-US nuclear deal in July last year, it was designed to be the centrepiece for a new strategic relationship. There were plenty of benefits for India: revival of its moribund civilian nuclear programme, the removal of tech sanctions and de facto nuclear power status. But the bigger objective was to karate chop the layers of suspicion that had reduced bettering relations to a snail’s pace. Bush wanted the Big Gesture to prove that the US was serious when it wanted to make India “a major power in the 21st century.”

But this was a rush job.

The Bush Administration had only about 18 months of legislative life left in its term. He had a visit to India slated for this spring. In any case, the nuclear deal was so revolutionary that it was decided to announce the policy and win the political and bureaucratic support later. “They feared,” said India nuke watcher George Perkovich, “that extended vetting would suck the boldness out of their strategy.” As events have since proven, getting that support is proving more difficult that the White House had expected.

Things are about the same for the Manmohan Singh government. The July agreement was far more encompassing than anything New Delhi had expected. The BJP government had left the outline of a nuclear deal behind —but it was far less generous for India.

India’s part of the July deal was to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities and put the former under international inspection, like other P-5 countries. However, there had been no time to prime the Indian nuclear establishment and there was only a vestigial plan for such a separation.

NAYSAYERS: The opposition to the deal has since proliferated in both the US and India. Crudely, there are technical and political naysayers in both countries.

In the US, the technical opponents are the nonproliferation lobby, who argue that the
nuclear deal is too risky for the global nuclear nonproliferation treaty system and, in any case, India doesn’t deserve an exemption from the rules. As nonproliferation expert Michael Krepon asked, does Bush “honestly believe that foreign nuclear suppliers will agree only to make an exception for India and not for other nations?”

The nonproliferation lobby believes it has two ways to poison the deal.

One is to question the credibility of India’s nuclear separation and inspection plans. If India does not put enough reactors under safeguards or insists on a flimsy inspection plan, they will argue, it has disproved the claim that it is a responsible nuclear power.

The other is Iran. If New Delhi is prepared to back a rogue state that deals with A.Q. Khan then it doesn’t deserve anything except the nuclear doghouse. The nonproliferation lobby, quietly abetted by Pakistan and China, is waiting to pounce on that.

The problem for Bush is that congressional support for India, as one diplomat noted, is “broad but shallow.” If all goes well, the votes will follow the President’s lead. But even a
minor disruption — like an Iran vote — could blow away huge chunks of support. At present most Congressmen are silent. “Only one legislator, Ed Markey, has publicly opposed the deal,” said a Washington observer.

SINGH SONG: Bush’s political battle is mirrored to an extent by that of Manmohan Singh. The deal’s opponents are also trying to administer two different poisons.

One deal-killer argument is essentially political. It comes from sections of the Congress, supported by the left parties, and argues that too much coziness with Bush and too much finger-wagging at Iran will cost the party dearly with swing Muslim votes. The Prime Minister, say his advisors, doesn’t believe there is such a thing as a unitary “Muslim vote”. His case has been strengthened by a recent HT poll showing that the Congress is in a strong position, in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere.

The other poison is the “Save Our Reactors” campaign coming from the Department of Atomic Energy. Having lived in splendid isolation all their careers, many of the scientists in this agency have become fearful of an international inspection regime. Cynics say they don’t want it to be known how unsafe

India’s ageing reactors actually are. The DAE wants many reactors which are patently only civilian to be classified as military — handing the US nonproliferation lobby a perfect excuse to cry: “India is cheating.”

TOUGH TALK: A further difficulty is that while the Prime Minister and the President have
understood and embraced the big picture behind the nuclear deal, many of their minions have not. Unfortunately, it is these pen-pushers who are now in charge of implementing the deal. “The irony is that those in charge of seeing the deal through are those who see it as too risky,” said one diplomatic source.

Combined with the growing opposition at home, this has resulted in India and the US taking tough negotiating positions. The optimism of November has been replaced by the grim faces evident when the US Secretary of State number three, Nicholas Burns and Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran met earlier this month. “The gap between the separation plans is wider than was probably expected,” said a source.

Negotiators on both sides are unfazed. Diplomats wouldn’t exist if countries agreed on everything all at once. The real problem is not bridging the divide but the lack of time to build the span — a span that encompasses a separation plan, a safeguards agreement and an additional protocol for inspections. Said one third country official, “Normally something like this would take a year to negotiate. But India and the US have barely a month.” There are plenty who still believe that the deal can be done by March.

Burns said on Friday, “I am positive that it can be done in time for the President's visit.” But the buzz in Indian diplomatic circles is that if it doesn't come together by the time Bush comes in early March, Manmohan Singh may be invited to visit Washington again this summer. Indian officials disagree with Mulford on one point. “This deal may take longer, but it won't die. It took the US and China 13 years to put their nuclear deal together,” said one.

First Published: Jan 29, 2006 02:39 IST