U.S.-India nuclear deal runs into trouble

Posted in India , United States | 23-Apr-07 | Author: Somini Sengupta| Source: International Herald Tribune

India's Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon.

A nuclear accord hailed as the centerpiece of India's new friendship with the United States appears to be in jeopardy, as officials here argue about whether its limitations on Indian nuclear activities are an affront to the country's sovereignty.

The accord, which was announced by President George W. Bush last year and approved by the U.S. Congress, is now mired in the swamp of history and the complicated politics of nonproliferation. In effect, negotiations have been unable to resolve a central question: should India be treated as a recognized nuclear weapons state, one that retains the right to test its weapons and reprocess spent nuclear fuel?

Those two issues - testing and fuel processing - are proving more difficult to sort out than anyone anticipated. The dispute has come up as the two countries are trying to negotiate an the detail of the accord, known as a "123 agreement."

The Indian side has resisted provisions in that agreement that could prohibit India from conducting further nuclear weapons tests and put restrictions on whether it can reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

The "123" refers to a section of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act.

The United States fears that the reprocessed fuel could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium for a new generation of nuclear weapons, undermining Bush's argument that the unusual deal with India would aid nonproliferation.

The deal is not necessarily doomed. But the sticking points are so politically contentious that they make it extremely difficult for either Bush or Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India to break the impasse easily.

U.S. and Indian negotiators conferred last week on the sidelines of a meeting of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group in South Africa, but failed to hammer out a final deal. Washington has made it clear that it has already made plenty of concessions to Indian demands, and Bush administration officials have openly stepped up pressure.

"We are frustrated it has taken this long," R. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, said in a telephone interview from Washington on Thursday. "We would have hoped for faster progress. But we do not doubt their good faith. We are friends. We will get through this."

Burns said the Indian foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, had been invited to Washington for talks early next month, and Burns then plans to travel to India.

Completion of the deal will determine whether India can buy nuclear fuel and reactors from the United States - or anywhere else. Until the 123 agreement is sealed, the exclusive Nuclear Suppliers Group, a loose organization of countries that sell nuclear equipment and material, will not open the doors to nuclear commerce with India.

The U.S.-Indian nuclear pact, announced in March 2006, would allow India access to civilian nuclear technology, overturning a decades-old ban that resulted from India's refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. India has possessed nuclear weapons for more than 30 years; it detonated its first device in 1974. The country waited until 1998 before exploding another weapon - a test that Pakistan answered with one of its own.

India also wants to generate nuclear power to meet its growing energy demand, which it says is its principal motivation for striking a deal with the United States. In exchange for the right to buy reactors and fuel on the world market, it has agreed to allow international inspections of its civilian nuclear facilities, which it has promised to segregate from its military arsenal.

The U.S. Congress last year gave its initial approval to the Bush administration to allow the sale of nuclear technology to India. The congressional blessing - preceded by intense lobbying - was advertised in Washington and New Delhi as a signal of India's growing importance to the United States.

The deal was opposed by many groups concerned with nonproliferation, which argued that the Bush administration was setting a bad precedent by agreeing to sell nuclear technology and fuel to a country that for years had declined to join the nonproliferation treaty. Opponents of the deal argued that Bush won no limits on the development of new Indian nuclear weapons.

For his part, the Indian prime minister, Singh, expended considerable political capital on selling the deal at home, where distrust of U.S. interests prevails, particularly among atomic scientists and the government's leftist allies.

"Were this deal to collapse now, after so much effort and hype, it would represent a substantial setback for the emerging partnership between the two countries," Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said in an e-mail message. "It would probably be many years before either side was willing to take political risks to rejuvenate the relationship."

Some opponents of the deal in Washington say they would be happy to see it collapse because of objections in New Delhi, leaving the Bush administration to argue that it came through with its part of the bargain, winning passage in Congress.

Even if the deal survives in India, the U.S. Congress would still have to vote on a final agreement on nuclear cooperation.

Prospects for the accord may have been muddied further by an indictment, made public earlier this month, charging officials at a private company, Cirrus, with buying prohibited weapons technology for the Indian government. The indictment drew heckles from the nonproliferation lobby in the United States and put new pressure on the government in New Delhi.

India's atomic scientists have been among the most influential critics of the nuclear deal, consistently protesting that it would nip the country's ability to advance its strategic program, for instance, by carrying out more nuclear tests.

India has promised a moratorium on tests, but as a Times of India editorial put it recently, "it would like, as an assertion of national sovereignty, to retain the theoretical right to conduct further tests."

Bharat Karnad, a strategic analyst with the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, maintained that India should not agree to any deal that kept it from acquiring nuclear weapons.

"Our nonproliferation interests simply cannot be reconciled," he said of India and the United States. India, he added, seeks to "enjoy the privileges and prerogatives of a nuclear state."

"Testing is the pivot on which the whole thing rests," Karnad argued. "It's the symbol of our strategic independence."

The other important sticking point is the right to reprocess spent fuel, an enterprise that the Americans fear would allow India to generate plutonium for its weapons programs. India says it needs the reprocessed fuel for civilian use alone.

The fuel dispute is as symbolic as it is practical, tinged with historical memory. In 1974, after India's first nuclear test, the United States cut off its supply of nuclear fuel for a reactor at Tarapur, in western India.

Indians to this day are fond of recalling that the Americans had originally agreed to provide a lifetime supply of fuel for the reactor.

The logjam is all the more serious for the timing. The longer the negotiations drag on, the closer it gets to U.S. elections in 2008 and Indian elections in 2009. There is considerable good will in India for all things American, but in this deeply nationalistic body politic, anti-American sentiment can also be deployed as a political tool, and Singh's government can hardly be seen to be bending too much to U.S. pressure.

"The pressure on both sides is time pressure," a senior Indian official said.

David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.