Revived U.S.-Indian Deal Heads to IAEA

Wade Boese

After appearing close to expiration, the U.S.-Indian civil nuclear cooperation deal was recently resuscitated when some Indian lawmakers relaxed their opposition to government talks with the world’s nuclear monitoring agency. The deal’s recovery, however, could be short lived if the consultations falter or fail to satisfy the lawmakers.

Almost exactly one month after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh informed President George W. Bush that their two-year-old initiative had run into “difficulties,” Singh’s coalition government Nov. 16 announced that the deal had won clearance to move ahead. That approval came when India’s Communist parties and their allies, whose votes help keep the coalition in power, consented to the government holding talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which promotes and monitors civilian nuclear activities worldwide.

Indian officials traveled Nov. 21 to the agency’s Vienna headquarters to begin their discussions on a safeguards arrangement for the nuclear facilities that New Delhi designates as serving civilian rather than military purposes. Safeguards are mechanisms, such as inspections and remote monitoring, that are intended to ensure that civilian nuclear programs are not contributing to the development of nuclear bombs.

India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974 using a device derived in part from U.S. and Canadian exports designated for “peaceful” purposes. Now estimated to have a stockpile of up to 100 warheads, New Delhi has resisted foreign pressure to forswear future nuclear testing and stop producing nuclear material for bombs.

Only Indian facilities with IAEA safeguards would be eligible for any new nuclear commerce opportunities created through the Bush administration’s drive to peel back nearly three decades of various U.S. and multilateral nuclear trade prohibitions on India that grew out of its 1974 blast. To take advantage of Washington’s work, which is the heart of the July 2005 U.S.-Indian deal, New Delhi announced in March 2006 that eight more nuclear power reactors would join six others already under IAEA safeguards. Another eight reactors would be off-limits to international oversight and ineligible for foreign nuclear supplies.

India has said that it wants “India-specific” safeguards to apply to the reactors and other facilities it is classifying as civilian. Indian officials have not publicly explained how these safeguards might differ from India’s existing safeguards, but reports exist that New Delhi, among other things, wants flexibility to withdraw facilities from safeguards in the event that foreign nuclear supplies are cut off, even if it is the result of renewed Indian nuclear testing.

India-specific safeguards that depart dramatically from existing arrangements could face more difficulty winning the approval of the agency’s 35 member-state Board of Governors, which currently includes India’s neighbor and rival, Pakistan. The board, which next meets March 3-7, 2008, typically approves safeguards by consensus.

The Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition also pledged that a committee that includes the leftist parties would review any completed IAEA agreement. Whether that panel has the power to reject the agreement is unclear.

Still, if they are dissatisfied, the leftist parties could again threaten to withdraw their support for the coalition government. The earlier use of this threat helped stall the effort previously and led to creation of the committee because Singh’s Congress Party feared that a leftist withdrawal could trigger early elections that would unseat the government. The leftist parties have condemned the overall U.S.-Indian initiative, charging that Singh is cozying up too much to Washington and compromising Indian sovereignty.

The main Indian opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has vehemently criticized the deal as a covert U.S. attempt to constrain India’s nuclear weapons complex. In a Nov. 7 statement, the party blasted Singh as making a “significant strategic blunder” and called for the deal to be “renegotiated and not hustled through as the UPA government is attempting.”

If Singh can navigate the deal through India’s turbulent politics and the IAEA, future nuclear cooperation will still depend on the Bush administration winning final approval for expanding nuclear trade with India from the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and Congress, which gave its preliminary and qualified approval last December. (See ACT, January/February 2007. ) Before Congress reconsiders the proposed U.S.-Indian bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, U.S. law requires that the NSG, which operates by consensus, adjust current guidelines that restrict trade with states, such as India, that do not subject their entire nuclear enterprise to IAEA safeguards. The next plenary meeting of the NSG is scheduled for May 2008, but a special session could be convened if the IAEA Board of Governors approves a new safeguards agreement with India.

The Bush administration has indicated it wants the deal finalized in 2008, but with U.S. elections scheduled for next November, the time for congressional action could be short.