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Home > News > Columnists > T P Sreenivasan

The nuclear deal: America's Dhritarashtra's embrace?

August 02, 2007

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Ambassador N Krishnan, a veteran of many disarmament negotiations made a prediction a month ago when the negotiations on the India-US nuclear agreement appeared to be in the doldrums.

"I am sure," he said, "the negotiators are capable of finding the words to conclude this deal. I am afraid, however, that there will be a lot of bickering afterwards on the meaning of those words." The first part of his prediction has come true and the second part may well be true as both sides claim that their needs have been met.

A popular UN dictum states that negotiations can be considered successful if the parties are equally unhappy about the outcome. If any side is in jubilation, the agreement is likely to run into trouble.

That explains why M K Narayanan, Shiv Shankar Menon and Anil Kakodkar, all of them pleasant gentlemen, did not appear too happy at their press conference. Nicholas Burns, on the other side of the Atlantic, also kept a somber expression, at least in the initial stages of his briefing. But both sides claimed victory.

The Indian side said the agreement did not go an inch beyond the prime minister's assurance in Parliament. The US negotiator said the agreement is 'completely consistent with the Hyde Act and well within the bounds of the Hyde Act itself.' Both these cannot be true at once, as the prime minister's position was contradictory to the provisions of the Hyde Act. Here comes the matter of interpretation and possibility of future bickering.

The opponents of the deal appear silenced for the moment, but they are waiting for the devil in the detail to spring up when the full text appears. One Marxist leader, who appeared with me on a television channel soon after the news of the agreement, 'welcomed' the outcome if the Indian claim was right and proceeded to take the credit for the Opposition and the scientists for exerting relentless pressure on the government.

This line will be developed further in the coming days. It will appear as though the government would have accepted all the demands of the Americans, if the opponents had not acted as sentinels of Indian sovereignty. The fact that the 2005 agreement, which was negotiated without any pressure on the Indian negotiators, was found to have a balance of rights and obligations should have been sufficient proof that the government was not in the danger of selling its soul for the sake of nuclear fuel.

Americans often say that their friends should remain friends, whether they are right or wrong. Our matching belief is that Americans can never be right when it comes to India's interests. Mutuality of interests between the two countries is considered impossible. It follows that if the agreement is acceptable to the Americans, it will not be in our interest.

Another test another analyst applied was the Chinese reaction. How was it that China, which was very angry at the time of the 1998 tests, did not oppose the India-US nuclear deal? If the deal is acceptable to China, it should be of immense harm to India.

Some see the whole situation as a Dhritarashtra's embrace in which the US will crush India into smithereens. The new strategic alliance will push India further and further into the American camp. They do not see that in the last two years of negotiations, India did not change any of its policy positions, including non-alignment, which was the target of attack of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The Iran vote at the International Atomic Energy Agency was a rare instance of complementarity of interests between India and the United States. No Indian vote in the United Nations was changed. The statistics prepared every year by the State Department on the resolutions on which India and the US vote differently must have remained static.

The US briefing on the deal was much more comprehensive than the Indian one. Nicholas Burns answered even hypothetical questions and made no secret of the fact that the deal was much more than an energy agreement. He claimed that the deal would promote non-proliferation because India would be finally in the mainstream. On testing, he was categorical that right to return in the event of an Indian test was fully respected in the agreement, but he was equally forceful in his expectation that such a contingency would not arise.

On reprocessing, the separate facility to be built entirely by India at its own cost was the key and there was no reason for the US to deny reprocessing if there were iron clad guarantee for non-diversion. This was indeed part of the principle of separation, which was agreed upon earlier. Burns reiterated that 14 out of 22 reactors were to be inspected and that 'all future breeder reactors will come under safeguards.'

Looking to the future, the two sides do not expect problems with either the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) or the IAEA. IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei has been an enthusiastic supporter of the deal and he should be able to shape India specific safeguards to make forward movement possible.

But as Burns stressed, any single country in the NSG could block the deal as the group worked on the basis of consensus. Some members of the Group which pulled back from the brink of weapons capability would be hesitant to endorse the Indian exception. Burns was clear that this was an exception and not a precedent and other countries like Pakistan should not aspire to a similar arrangement.

As for the US Congress, the going would be tough, but the Bush administration is fairly confident that the Hyde Act will not stand in the way.

If India made an error of judgment in the whole two years and two days of the negotiations, it was the attitude it took to the Hyde Act. India's entire lobbying capacity in Washington in the form of Indian Americans and the business community was deployed in support of the Hyde Act on the basis of a notion that the administration wanted just an enabling law as though the provisions of the Hyde Act did not matter. When the provisions of the Hyde Act began to block the negotiations, questions were asked as to why India did not anticipate these hurdles at an earlier stage.

A similar choice was faced by India when Senator Sam Brownback proposed that all sanctions against India and Pakistan should go in one clean sweep, including the Pressler Amendment. We stood firm against it in the knowledge that this was a way of favouring Pakistan in the guise of helping India.

With the finalisation of the 123 agreement, the dehyphenation between India and Pakistan has been completed. Burns dismissed possibility of any such arrangement with Pakistan by recalling the A Q Khan nuclear Wal-Mart. But he did sing the praise of Pakistan as an ally in the war against terror. India's potential was however, highlighted when he talked of the possibility of substantial defence cooperation with India and the crucial partnership with India in South Asia. On India-Iran relations, Burns did not seem unduly concerned.

That the agreement will lead to good business with India is no secret in the American calculations. It was clarified that the US could enter the nuclear business in India even before the reprocessing facility was built and the related arrangements were in place. In other words, India can buy equipment even before the reprocessing arrangements are finalised. India may see it differently when the time comes.

The promise of the Joint Statement of July 2005 was that India would be treated like a Nuclear Weapon State without signing the NPT. The Hyde Act moved away from that position by creating a plethora of conditionalities. The alternative to NPT that the Bush administration is offering to India in terms of the 123 Agreement should be welcome. It does not matter whether we give the credit for it to our able negotiators or to those who constantly pointed to the dangers of shifting goalposts.

The vigilance that the government has shown in safeguarding our interests should continue through the implementation stage and beyond. The new phase of intensive engagement with the United States will have its own challenges and rewards.

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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