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Home > India > News > Columnists > T P Sreenivasan

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India has got the best possible agreement

July 14, 2008

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When Dr R Grover of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and Venkatesh Varma of the Ministry of External Affairs sat down with the Director of the Department of External Relations of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna to hammer out an India specific safeguards agreement, there were two unseen participants in the negotiations.

The Indians wanted an agreement that will be acceptable to Prakash Karat and the IAEA wanted to make sure that Uncle Sam was on board. The positions of both are reflected in the balanced document that has emerged from the negotiations.

The terms of the proposed inspections have been set without compromising India's sovereign right to manage its nuclear facilities in its best interests in the spirit of the Indo-US Joint Statement of 2005.

The draft has been attacked by both the non-proliferationists as well as the champions of Indian nuclear sovereignty, who may be called the 'liberationists.' This by itself is evidence of the fact that it is the art of the possible that has determined the text.

Both sides were under the illusion that the safeguards agreement would give them the satisfaction that they did not get in the deal itself. The negotiators in Vienna could not have added embellishments to the deal one way or another. They had to remain within the framework available to them and fashion a regime that would remain faithful to the documents so far adopted between India and the US.

If anything, Grover and Varma secured for India the best possible agreement, given the complexities of the deal itself.

The non-proliferationists complain that India got away with too much and the liberationists complain that India gave away too much in the negotiations on the safeguards agreement.

The former believe that by making the safeguards material specific and not facility specific, India has staged a coup. Their expectation was that all the designated facilities would be subjected to inspection in perpetuity. But the safeguards agreement captures the essential point that the logic of the inspection is that the facilities use imported nuclear material.

The 1973 board document, which will be the basis for any termination is known to speak of fuel from third parties. Interestingly, both sides find the use of the 1973 document objectionable. The non-proliferationists think that this will enable India to take out the indigenous reactors off the list.

The liberationists have missed the major gain of the agreement, which is that the designation of facilities to be inspected and the date on which the inspection should commence have been left to the sovereign discretion of India. The separation plan does not find place in the annex and there is no provision for the inspection to start even before the US Congress approves the deal.

This is indeed a major criticism of the non-proliferationist lobby. Some Indian commentators have adverse comments on the financing of the inspections. As those who follow the IAEA norms know well, the expenditure will be borne by the IAEA and the Indian share will be nominal, just for accounting or facilitating inspections.

The amount quoted is modest and the implication is that the inspections will be nominal and not like in the case of rogue states. The agreement itself speaks of the number, duration and intensity of inspections being kept at the minimum. India will not be in the category of nuclear weapon states, but it will also not be in the category of rogue states, whose installations, regardless of their purpose, will be subject to inspections.

The fact that India has nuclear weapons makes the inspections less stringent. The expectation is that as India switches to indigenous fuel, the inspections will cease altogether.

The safeguards agreement closely follows the standard agreements, which India itself has signed, complain the liberationists. But that does not make the agreement any less India specific. The many clauses in the preamble have never been incorporated before. It is pointless to say that the IAEA has not taken any responsibility to ensure perpetual supplies.

The IAEA simply does not have the competence or the authority to ensure supplies. But the fact that the agreement takes note of this requirement gives it a certain sanctity and a clear advantage for India.

Much has been said about the reference to the 'corrective measures' that India may take in the event of disruption of supplies. The non-proliferationists and the liberationists find this provision too vague. The former believe that it opens up the possibility for India to take unilateral measures of a grave nature, while the latter think that the measures that India can take should have been specified.

The ambiguity in this case is a matter of strength for India in the eventuality of having to take unspecified corrective measures. It strengthens the sovereignty element, which has been reinforced by the safeguards agreement.

The draft is yet to be approved by the IAEA Board, but if it emerges unscathed, even with a vote on it, much of the criticism that the inspections would tie India down in perpetuity to intrusive inspections even of our indigenous facilities should disappear. The non-proliferationists have already pointed out that the word 'perpetuity' does not figure in the agreement.

One windfall that has come in India's way, whether by design or as a logical consequence of the new approach, is that our other safeguards agreements, which are applicable to facilities that use imported fuel, will be suspended as long as the new safeguards agreement is in force.

This will be an improvement because the facilities, which are under individual safeguards agreements, will be freed as soon as they cease to have imported fuel. Some eyebrows have been raised over this provision in the draft.

The prompt support extended to the draft by the governor from the United States signals that the US was indeed looking over the shoulders of the IAEA negotiators as they painstakingly put together a draft that carefully followed the provisions of the Indo-US agreement.

The pressures of the non-proliferation lobby will have little impact on the US in these circumstances. The G-8 countries have also expressed support to the deal at their recent summit. But other governors may raise the points brought out by the non-proliferationists, one of whom has characterised the draft as 'stinking.' He has demanded that, at the very least, the designated facilities should be inspected in perpetuity and that the IAEA should terminate the agreement in the event of another Indian test.

The reverberations of these demands will be heard in the NSG as well as in the US Congress. But the board is well on its way to approving the draft agreement, with a few abstentions, but no negative votes.

The mistake that the enemies of the deal in India and the US are making is to seek satisfaction over their own wish list in the safeguards agreement. The negotiators have made sure that the safeguards agreement does not veer from the objectives of the nuclear deal. If anything, the Indian negotiators have ensured that the agreement does not impose new obligations on India.

In this, the goodwill of the IAEA and its Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei, has also played a major role.

T P Sreenivasan, a former member of the Indian Foreign Service, was India's ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, and governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.


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