With U.S. officials warning that time is running out on an initiative to rollback restrictions on global nuclear trade with India, that country’s coalition government failed March 17 to persuade its leftist allies to drop their opposition to the U.S.-Indian effort. Another meeting to sway the holdouts is supposed to take place sometime in April.
The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is trying to win over the leftist parties because they have threatened to withdraw support for the ruling coalition if it takes certain steps toward implementing what the leftists charge is a deal that will erode India’s sovereignty and security. Such a split could trigger early elections that risk unseating Singh’s government.
The key issue at the March conclave was whether Singh’s government should finalize a safeguards agreement it negotiated over the past several months with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Safeguards are measures that the agency applies to a country’s declared civilian nuclear materials, technologies, and facilities to guard against their use for nuclear weapons purposes.
As part of a March 2006 agreement with President George W. Bush, Singh pledged to put eight additional Indian thermal nuclear reactors under IAEA safeguards, leaving another eight outside of safeguards and free to contribute to India’s nuclear weapons sector. New Delhi also plans to keep its two fast breeder reactors, which can produce large quantities of the nuclear bomb material plutonium, outside of safeguards. It further retains the option to designate any future reactors of any type that it builds off-limits to the IAEA.
Singh’s government is seeking the leftist parties’ endorsement of the new safeguards arrangement so it can be completed and presented for approval by the IAEA’s 35-member Board of Governors. The leftist parties have warned that they will break with the government if it proceeds with the safeguards agreement without their consent.
The text of the India-specific safeguards agreement remains secret and unfinished. A source familiar with the IAEA-Indian talks told Arms Control Today March 19 that “the sides are close to a final text, but India has to confirm the text” before it can be presented to the board, which typically has agreed to safeguards arrangements by consensus. It can, however, approve them with a simple majority vote.
At the March meeting, Singh’s government did not share the safeguards text with the representatives of the leftist parties, opting to brief them instead. The Hindu, one of India’s largest daily newspapers, reported afterward that leftist leaders said they need more details and that deliberations might take another three to four months.
That prospect conflicts with recent statements by U.S. government officials and legislators that the IAEA Board of Governors and the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) must act rapidly on the U.S.-Indian initiative so U.S. lawmakers can take it up before this summer when Congress will recess and then turn its attention to the November elections. (See ACT, March 2008 .) The 45 members of the NSG, including the United States, seek to coordinate their nuclear export rules, one of which restricts trade with countries, such as India, that do not subject their entire nuclear enterprise to IAEA safeguards and remain outside the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. India largely has been ostracized from the international nuclear market since conducting a 1974 nuclear blast that used material derived from Canadian and U.S. exports designated for peaceful purposes.
U.S. lawmakers in December 2006 approved legislation with a provision that the NSG must clear India for expanded nuclear trade before Congress will vote on a U.S.-Indian nuclear trade agreement negotiated last summer. (See ACT, September 2007 .) Meanwhile, the NSG is waiting on IAEA board approval of the Indian safeguards agreement.
The next NSG meeting is scheduled to occur May 19-22, which is prior to the next regular IAEA board meeting June 2-6. A special meeting of the board, however, can be convened at the request of the IAEA director-general or any board member, including the United States or India. The source familiar with the IAEA-Indian talks said that there are “no plans for a special session of the board” but noted that could change quickly if the Indian government gives final approval to the negotiated safeguards text.Still, the window might already be closed. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, told the Hindustan Times Feb. 29 that the “Indian government needs to move in the month of March on the IAEA Board of Governors” in order to give the NSG and Congress time to act. Noting that “it’s not going to happen overnight,” he warned that the NSG process will be “complicated” and “require many meetings.” Burns further cautioned that if Congress did not get around to passing the agreement this year, he thought “it’s very likely that we will not see it continued by a new administration.”