In spite of a U.S. pledge of support for Indian membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), New Delhi is not likely to enter the group anytime soon, sources said last month.
President Barack Obama made the commitment of support in a Nov. 8 joint statement with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during Obama’s visit to India.
Part of the reason for the long timeline for Indian entry is that the NSG, which now has 46 members, makes decisions by consensus, the sources said. But they also cited the multistage process that would be required before India was eligible, as well as the commitment by the United States and other NSG countries to reach agreement on a long-standing issue—the revision of the group’s export guidelines on transfers of certain nuclear technology—before they took up the question of Indian membership.
India would be the first member of the NSG that is not a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). A key criterion for membership in the group is that the country is a party to and complying with the NPT or a nuclear-weapon-free-zone treaty.
Until two years ago, India was not eligible to receive exports from NSG members because it is a non-NPT state and does not open all its nuclear facilities to international inspections. But in response to a U.S.-led initiative, the group agreed to lift that requirement for India in return for certain nonproliferation “commitments and actions.” (See ACT, October 2008.) The United States created a similar exception from its nuclear export law. U.S. officials emphasized that the decision was only for India.
In a Nov. 29 interview, a Department of State official said the United States does not see the new initiative as a “repeat” of the 2008 decision. Rather than creating a unique exception for India, the initiative signals an effort to begin discussions on “evolving” the membership criteria of the NSG and other export control regimes so that non-NPT countries can become eligible, she said.
Israel and Pakistan also have never been NPT parties and maintain unsafeguarded nuclear programs.
According to the joint statement, the United States “intends to support” Indian membership in those regimes “in a phased manner, and to consult with regime members to encourage the evolution of regime membership criteria, consistent with maintaining the core principles of these regimes, as the Government of India takes steps towards the full adoption of the regimes’ export control requirements to reflect its prospective membership, with both processes moving forward together.”
That would mean that the NSG would have to agree on the revised membership criteria and then determine whether India met those criteria, the State Department official said.
Before the easing of the NSG export restrictions in 2008, India stated its unilateral adherence to the group’s guidelines. The official declined to comment on whether India’s export controls currently meet NSG guidelines, but said that, as an NSG adherent, India is expected to “keep current” with the guidelines as they change.
Critics have said that because India already has made a commitment to meet the NSG’s export standards, which are nonbinding, the new initiative requires nothing from New Delhi in return for the benefits of NSG membership, chiefly, recognition as a responsible nuclear state and the ability to have a say in the group’s decisions.
The official countered that there is a benefit to the nonproliferation regime in having India participate in the discussion and the exchanges of information that take place within the NSG. Membership may give India “more of a stake” in the regime, she said.
One Initiative at a Time
Two officials from NSG member countries said the group is not planning to take up the question of Indian membership until the NSG works out a revision of guidelines on exports relating to uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. The NSG has been wrestling with that issue since 2004.
In a Nov. 22 interview, a U.S. official said that the U.S. priority in the NSG is “100 percent” on revamping the guidelines on sensitive nuclear exports. The United States is not “contemplating discussion at this time” on Indian membership, he said.
The U.S. government is hoping the NSG will reach consensus on the guidelines revision this year, he said.
The NSG’s Consultative Group met in Vienna Nov. 10-11, but “we are where we were before the meeting” on guidelines for sensitive exports, the official said.
A European diplomat said in a Nov. 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today that “the Chair [New Zealand] is working away on this with the countries most concerned, but it appears likely at present that this issue will have to come back to Plenary.” The change in the guidelines would have to take place at a plenary meeting, which the NSG typically holds once a year. The next plenary is scheduled for June in the Dutch town of Noordwijk. Changing the guidelines before then would require a special plenary to be convened.
In late 2008, the NSG produced a “clean text” and appeared to be close to reaching agreement (see ACT, December 2008), but efforts have stalled since then. In recent months, several observers have cited Turkey as the principal obstacle.
The U.S. official said there have been changes made in the text “to accommodate a number of concerns, not just Turkey[’s].”
In October, Gary Samore, the White House arms control coordinator, indicated that the United States would consider dropping the six-year-old effort to revise the guidelines if it did not bear fruit soon. (See ACT, November 2010.) But in the interview, the U.S. official said Samore’s comments were not inconsistent with the ongoing U.S. effort. Samore’s point was that “our patience isn’t going to last forever,” he said.
Some observers, noting the hurdles to Indian membership and the time frame that would be required, have questioned whether the United States actually intends to pursue the effort vigorously. They suggested that the Obama administration might have made the announcement to give a near-term boost to U.S.-Indian relations.
One House staffer, who called the initiative “terrible” for nonproliferation, said Nov. 16 that he is “hoping it was pure cynicism,” that is, that the administration was promising something that it “know[s] would never happen.”
The State Department official said, “People will believe what they want to believe,” but emphasized, “I certainly see this as doable.”