Bottomline | Stillborn Agreement

The US is asking India much more than it is giving in return

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The government should understand that the July 18 nuclear energy agreement with the United States was a mistake, and that the need now is to urgently assess its implications, notably, purchase of US defence equipment, and India’s relations with Iran. To begin with, even when the dates of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the US were decided months in advance, the agreement was clinched at the last minute. Credible reports (Vir Sanghvi in Hindustan Times) said that Manmohan Singh held up clearing the agreement by a few hours because the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Anil Kakodkar, who had accompanied the PM, was deliberating on it. This implies last minute objections to the text by both sides; never mind what was agreed in person. And this exactly is the problem. Even before the ink had dried on the agreement, senior US officials made it known that India will need to give a roadmap to separate its nuclear and civilian reactors as a one shot measure before the Bush administration goes to the Congress for necessary national legislative amendments. Thrown off balance by such statements, Manmohan Singh clarified in Parliament that the agreement was premised on reciprocity and India alone will both decide which civilian nuclear facilities could be placed under safeguards and the terms of additional protocol (the inspection regime) with the IAEA. However, to assuage the US, India’s foreign secretary, Shyam Saran publicly declared that ‘it makes no sense for India to deliberately keep some of its civilian facilities out of the declaration for safeguard purposes,’ suggesting that all civilian facilities could be placed under the IAEA. A former chairman and now member of the AEC, M.R. Srinivasan disagrees with Saran. He says that ‘it seems unreasonable to expect India to place all its facilities which could be deemed as civilian under the IAEA safeguards.’ Clearly, the AEC is not completely in the government’s nuclear policy loop. The chairman, AEC appears more close to the government than its members.

This is not all. Saran also said that, ‘The Indo-US agreement is not about India’s nuclear weapon programme. It is about civilian nuclear energy cooperation.’ Wrong. According to US under secretary of state of political affairs, Nicholas Burns, the agreement is about non-proliferation. India’s first national security advisor, Brajesh Mishra agrees. Speaking to FORCE (August 2005), he said that the agreement would impact on the size of India’s nuclear arsenal. ‘By agreeing to separate the two facilities we would in fact have agreed to the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty even before it is signed,’ Mishra asserts. Undeterred by the raging debate both inside and outside the government of India, the US linked the agreement with India voting against Iran on the IAEA resolution. Burns then travelled to India to advise what nuclear separation roadmap will be acceptable to the US Congress, and that India prepare it soon. He also made it clear that any reciprocal action by the administration will be possible only after the Bush visit to India in early 2006. What he did not say, but implied, is that the Bush visit may be linked to Delhi’s response to the agreement.

Meanwhile, all major US defence manufacturers have set up swanky offices in Delhi and are breathing down the government’s neck to consider their wares favourably. To lend weight to their case, India has accepted the US’ proposal for defence co-production, knowing well that it is not possible for a variety of reasons. Two important reasons being India’s inability to match US’ levels in defence research, materials, production, and finances, and the US’ reluctance to part with high level technology (remember the demise of the Bush’s Next Steps in Strategic Partnership that was to give high technology to India) for fear of internal proliferation. Aware of all this, the US defence companies are rushing ahead to do low level defence tie-ups with India’s public sector undertakings hoping that they will exert pressure on the government to accept US equipment. Never mind the defence services that can already foresee two problems in purchasing major hardware from the US. One, another major equipment would be added to the services’ inventory with accompanying training, maintenance, doctrinal and spares stocking problems. And two, the US has a track record of stopping equipment product support when political relations sour.

Unfortunately, the government is not thinking about all this. What it is worrying about is how to balance its relations with Iran without upsetting the US. India is busy congratulating itself for something it has not done. The reasons why the IAEA vote on Iran for referral to the UN Security Council has been postponed are the Russian proposal for Iran, and the Bush administration’s willingness to go along with the world opinion after the Iraq fiasco. It is, however, evident that Iran is in no mood to relent, and that Russia and China will continue to back it against the US. With a low rating at home and a discredited image abroad, Bush is not in a position to let alone use the military option, to even ensure an impregnable UN sanctions against Iran. Except for India, everyone else knows this. Moreover, Iran has already cautioned India that a repeat of its earlier conduct at the IAEA will be at the cost of bilateral relations. India will soon need to decide between the Bush visit and its own national interest.


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