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'Bush offered India an alternate route'

March 09, 2006 17:17 IST

A week after the historic visit to India by United States President George W Bush, the debate on the landmark India-US nuclear continues.

President Bush in India

Acoording to India's commitments in the nuclear agreement, the Indian government has to separate and identify civilian nuclear facilities and submit them to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

How difficult or easy is it to deal with the IAEA and what India-specific nuclear safeguards are possible?

Managing Editor George Iype asked rediff.com columnist T P Sreenivasan, a former ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, and former governor for India at the IAEA, for his insights on how India should deal with the global nuclear agency.

You once worked closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Could you share your experiences of working with the IAEA?

Among the specialised agencies of the United Nations, the IAEA is very highly respected for its efficiency, impartiality and effectiveness. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize for the agency and its director general, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei is a testimony to this.

The high level panel of the UN secretary general made a special mention of the IAEA as the agency that delivers the best value for money. It is also the favourite agency of the United States and the other permanent members of the Security Council. When the US reduced its contribution to the UN and its agencies, it left the IAEA untouched.

Moreover, the US makes substantial voluntary contributions to the technical co-operation fund and the safeguards budget. Consequently, the IAEA has no shortage of funds for activities considered essential by the US and others.

My experience as the governor for India on the board (2000-2004) was fascinating. India is a permanent member of the 35-member board and we also chair the Middle East and South Asia Group of the board.

But, as non-signatories to the NPT, India, Pakistan and Israel are considered out of the IAEA mainstream. Indian scientists are excluded from the Department of Safeguards, and India does not accept assistance from the technical co-operation fund.

India is also not chosen for leadership positions after the tests of 1998. The US has objected to India assuming the chairmanship of the board and even our effort to get the Comptroller and Auditor General elected as the auditor of the IAEA met with stiff resistance on account of our status.

A global bully as a friend

India, despite these handicaps, wields great influence in the board. Whenever major issues had to be resolved, the board turned to India for help and I was asked to chair several working groups of the board on issues ranging from the budget to transportation issues. The constructive role of India is much appreciated.

The director general maintains a good equation with the Indian governor and our senior scientists and seeks our guidance on all issues.

How do you think the IAEA will take the India-US deal?

The director general has already welcomed the India-US deal as it goes a long way in meeting India's energy needs and brings India closer to the non-proliferation regime. The board has diverse interests represented on it and, therefore, it will react depending on the attitude of the Nuclear Weapon States and Nuclear Suppliers Group members.

How can India deal with the IAEA on the India-US nuclear deal? How difficult or easy is it to deal with the IAEA?

Once the deal is approved by the US Congress and the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group), the IAEA will be requested to devise a safeguard system to inspect the designated civilian facilities. As the implementing agency, the IAEA will not pose any special problems. We also need to negotiate an additional protocol with the IAEA, as stipulated in the July 18 agreement.

Again how difficult or easy is it to get India-specific safeguards from the IAEA?

There is no alternative to devising India-specific safeguards, as the present regime for non-Nuclear Weapon States will not apply to India. This will be time consuming, but will not be difficult, once the political decision is taken.

You stated in a recent rediff column: 'The US Congress, the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the IAEA Board of Governors will not be easy to deal with.' What are the difficulties of dealing with the IAEA board?

The difficulties will be created by the same countries in the Nuclear Suppliers Group as well as in the IAEA board. I was referring to the initial resistance by countries in every forum. ;In the past, countries like Brazil, South Africa, Ukraine etc, have objected to technology transfer to India as long as India did not sign the NPT.

Once they accept the deal in the NSG, they will automatically accept it in the board also. Till then, they will block any move in the board.

It is said the Department of Atomic Energy's assessment was that the country's fast breeder reactors could not be placed under IAEA safeguards, now or ever. What is your opinion?

On these matters, I go by the views of our scientists. I am not competent to comment on them.

Find out what the experts said about the Bush visit

Critics say IAEA inspectors have spied for the US. Is it true?

No. The inspectors come from different countries and it is normal for them to share the information with their own governments.

It is alleged that whatever information the IAEA collects is first sent to Washington, DC, only later to the IAEA headquarters in Vienna. What is your experience/comment?

I have no experience to support this allegation. The information gathered by the IAEA is available to all the concerned member States. Some use the information, others do not.

Why did Washington suddenly want to hug India after having tried to throttle the Indian nuclear programme in an earlier era?

No doubt, there has been a change of heart on the part of the United States. Earlier administrations have insisted on India signing the NPT. The Clinton administration wanted us to sign the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty). The Bush administration offered India an alternate route to the non-proliferation regime. The US motivations are far from clear, but there is a balance of rights and obligations in the Indo-US deal.

Do you think Delhi was arm twisted by Washington into supporting its position on Iran?

Our position in the IAEA board since the issue came up during my time was that Iran should abide by its obligations under the NPT, which it signed voluntarily and cooperate with the board to remove the fears of the international community about Iran's nuclear programme.

Though no vote was taken, we were part of several consensus resolutions, which Iran had rejected. Reference to the Security Council is a requirement in the event of non-compliance by Iran and, therefore, there was nothing dramatic in our supporting the September and February resolutions.

Concerns about the nuclear deal remain

We might have abstained if there was no India-US nuclear deal and the decision to support the US position was taken probably to facilitate the passage of the deal by the US Congress. It was more a matter of India respecting US sensitivities rather than arm-twisting by the US.

How will India's position affect the proposed gas pipeline deal with Iran? Do you think Bush has given a tacit approval for it in his comments in Pakistan?

The pipeline deal will stand or fall on the basis of its own merits, though Iran's irritation over India's position in the IAEA may have an impact on it. The popular interpretation of Bush's statement in Pakistan is that the US does not object to it anymore.

Photograph: Paresh Gandhi