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Home > India > News > Columnists > Minhaz Merchant

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Uncovering the Indo-US nuclear deal

July 18, 2008

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Complete coverage: The Indo-US nuclear tango

There are several good strategic reasons why India should not sign the 123 Agreement.

The Indo-US nuclear deal is essentially a diluted version of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which India, under both Congress and BJP governments, has refused to sign since the 1970s. Why? Because the NPT is deeply biased in favour of the five original nuclear "proliferators" -- the US, Russia [Images], Britain, France [Images] and China. It unjustly ties the hands of a responsible nuclear power like India which uses nuclear technology to run its civil reactors as well as maintain a minimum credible nuclear deterrent.

The Bush administration, recognising that 30 years of coercing different Indian governments on non-proliferation had failed, adopted a new strategy after 2005. The 123 Agreement is the culmination of that strategy. The basic tenet of the Bush anti-proliferation strategy (fully backed by both John McCain [Images] and Barack Obama [Images]) remains unchanged. Usable nuclear weapons must remain the exclusive preserve of the five old proliferators led by the US. That leaves five other countries with nuclear weapons capability: Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran. The US has structured a nuanced policy to deal with each.

Israel is a US proxy state and its (undeclared) nuclear arsenal is directly under Washington's control. Pakistan is a US client-state. Control over its nuclear weapons too lies in Washington. North Korea has over the past year been successfully "persuaded" with a combination of coercion and cash to abandon its nuclear weapons programme. That leaves Iran and India. Iran has been threatened with invasion. Sanctions against it have been enhanced. The Islamist state remains unmoved. It is Washington's biggest proliferation worry and could yet be the target of a pre-emptive US-Israeli missile attack.

And India? This country is unique. We are a parliamentary democracy, the world's fourth largest economy, a big financial and consumer market, liberal, secular, English-speaking with Anglo-Saxon laws, judiciary and accounting, a professional bureaucracy and a strong, independent media. Recognising belatedly that India was an "honourable exception" among the five new nuclear states (four of them proxy, fundamentalist or rogue), the US in 2005 crafted a customised nuclear agreement to cap India's nuclear weapons capability.

This is the genesis of the 123 Agreement. The 123 does not explicitly bar India from conducting nuclear tests -- which are vital to maintain a minimum credible nuclear deterrent. But if India does test, consequences follow. The principal consequence? The 123 Agreement will be terminated by the US President.

Immediately following this, the US and the NSG (a cartel created specifically by the US to punish India for its Pokharan nuclear test) will ask India to return the uranium fuel supplied by them for the country's nuclear reactors. That will effectively end India's civil nuclear power programme, despite assurances of India-specific fuel safeguards from the IAEA and the NSG. To get back to an indigenous uranium fuel supply chain will be extremely difficult for India. The Americans are counting on this to make it virtually impossible for any future Indian government to conduct a nuclear test since the consequences are so unpalatable.

The result: an effective abandonment of India's independent minimum credible nuclear deterrent -- the cornerstone of every Indian government's policy for nearly four decades. Meanwhile, the original five nuclear proliferators (the US, Russia, Britain, France and China) have between them over 25,000 nuclear bombs (India has less than 12) and are unwilling to dismantle even a fraction of this arsenal.

The choice is stark. By signing the 123 Agreement, India is effectively giving up it 34-year-old nuclear deterrent at a time when China is enhancing its own nuclear capability. (So is Pakistan; both China and Pakistan are, unsurprisingly, delighted with the 123 Agreement). In return, we will be "allowed" to give Western and Russian civil nuclear infrastructure companies business (from Indian taxpayers' money) worth over $120 billion.

But what about India's energy security? Nuclear power currently accounts for 3.10% of our total energy output. If the 123 Agreement is signed, that figure will crawl up to 6% (around 16,000 mw) by 2020. (Remember: over 25% of India's power output is lost in transmission and distribution). In return for the miniscule accretion of 2.9% to India's total energy output over 12 years, the country will surrender its independent nuclear deterrent.

The Indo-US nuclear deal serves America's and the NSG's non-proliferation interest. It certainly does not serve India's national interest or secure its energy needs as (untruthfully) claimed by the government.

Now consider this:

1. The Additional Protocols governing the "guarantee" of uninterrupted supply of uranium fuel to India's civil nuclear reactors in the event of termination of the 123 Agreement have not yet been revealed. These are certain to be far more invasive and intrusive than the draft IAEA Safeguards agreement. 

2. In the preamble of the IAEA Safeguards draft agreement, there is a clause that states: 'An essential basis of India's concurrence to accept Agency safeguards under an India-specific safeguards agreement is the conclusion of international cooperation arrangements creating the necessary conditions for India to obtain access to the international fuel market, including reliable, uninterrupted and continuous access to fuel supplies from companies in several nations, as well as support for an Indian effort to develop a strategic reserve of nuclear fuel to guard against any disruption of supply over the lifetime of India's reactors.'

In the absence of these 'international cooperation arrangements', the India-specific IAEA Safeguards agreement is itself legally invalid. For members of Parliament to vote on a nuclear deal without the above two crucial documents (the Additional Protocol and international cooperation agreements with key NSG members) is therefore a charade.

In sum: the 123 finally gives the US-led non-proliferation lobby what it has wanted -- but not got -- for 34 years: an India without usable nuclear weapons. In return India gets a trickle of additional nuclear power and invasive inspections in perpetuity of 70% of its civil nuclear reactors (compared to only 1% of China's nuclear reactors under the US-China 123 Agreement). A good bargain? For the original five nuclear proliferators, led by the US, yes. For India, no.

The prime minister has in the past stated categorically that the Indo-US nuclear deal must have a "broad national consensus" to be seen as legitimate. With Parliament split down the middle on  the deal, the definition of a broad national consensus is not met.

The honourable course of action in these circumstances is to wait for the newly elected governments in the US and India next year to seek that consensus � and only then proceed with the deal.

The author is the biographer of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla


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