Indo-US Nuclear Agreement

Have negotiations on Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation reached an impasse with both sides refusing to cede ground? Is the agreement that was announced with so much fanfare in July 2005 by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush now headed for the dust bin of history? The postponement or cancellation of the much anticipated Delhi trip of the chief US interlocutor for the nuclear agreement Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns comes in the wake of reports in the Indian and US media of growing frustrations on both sides. A report that appeared in USA Today in mid-April has said that the nuclear agreement risks collapse under the weight of Indian demands. The prognostications have not been uniformly negative. In an article that ran in the Washington Post at the end of April, Nicholas Burns waxed eloquent on the possibilities opened up by Indo-US cooperation across a wide range of areas including trade, agriculture, science and technology.  Entitled "Heady Times for India and the US," the article predicted that within a generation the US might come to view India as one of its two or three most important strategic partners. [1] Burns was expected to visit India in the second week of May for the purpose of concluding negotiations. These expectations were dispelled when the External Affairs spokesperson said on May 17 that no dates had been set for the visit.  The uncertainty as to Burn’s trip has deepened existing doubts on the Indo-US nuclear deal. The agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation has received exceptional publicity.  The controversial granting of US and international civilian nuclear cooperation to a non-signatory to the non-proliferation treaty has made the deal highly visible over the course of its evolution. The deal has been in the making for almost two years, withstood the opposition of US non-proliferation experts, and cleared a succession of Congressional legislative hurdles. Moreover both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush have a heavy investment in the initiative which if successfully clinched will go on record as a major foreign relations accomplishment. Given all that is riding on the deal’s success, it is too early to conclude that the accords are dead. However the current situation makes it worthwhile to step back and review the circumstances that could shed light on the existing stalemate.    

With the passage in December 2006 of the legislation endorsing civilian nuclear cooperation between India and the US and the signing of the bill into law by President Bush, a new chapter was opened in the turbulent saga of the Indo-US nuclear deal. The stage was set for negotiations on the final contours of the 123 agreement that would give India access to nuclear fuel, reactors and technology of US origin. The 123 agreement is a bilateral treaty that grants the participating countries exemption from the provisions of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954. Several instances of this treaty are in place since the document is a necessary preliminary to the conduct of nuclear commerce between the US and countries with which it has transactions in nuclear goods and products. The 123 agreement has become the newest battleground in negotiations related to the nuclear deal.  The contentious issues have to do with stipulations that were incorporated in the legislation that was ratified by Congress and named the Hyde Act. The legislation has provisions for punitive measures that will go into force if India performs a nuclear test.  India has been objecting to these clauses which along with other penalties require the return of nuclear equipment. Indian spokespersons have argued that India has adhered to a unilateral moratorium on testing in the wake of the nuclear tests of 1998. They maintain that this self-imposed ban constitutes a reliable guarantee of future abstinence. India is now insisting that the 123 agreement should include language that binds the US to ensuring a continuing supply of fuel for safeguarded reactors via the international consortium of nuclear suppliers, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, if the provisions of the Hyde Act go into effect as a consequence of India being compelled to conduct nuclear tests in response to changes in the strategic environment. The feverish deliberations of Indian and US interlocutors have been directed toward reaching consensus on the shape of the final document prior to the meeting of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush on the sidelines of the G-8 summit to be held in early June. The fate of the Indo-US nuclear deal hangs in the balance now that the Burns trip has been deferred.

It is important to recognize that developments on the international front in the months since the signing of the Hyde Act have introduced unanticipated elements into a context that was already fraught with strife. Chief among these is resumed interaction between high ranking officials of India and Iran and—even more unexpectedly—the infusion of fresh momentum into talks relating to the India-Pakistan-Iran (IPI) pipeline project which had been abandoned in response to strident opposition from the United States. Clearly the fact that the US has been inching closer in recent weeks to a dialogue with Iran over the Iraq issue is not to be interpreted as tacit permission to India for entry into bilateral dealings with Iran. That the US-imposed interdiction on trade talks between India and Iran remains in force has been unmistakably conveyed by US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman who visited India at the end of March and asked the government to break off the pipeline talks. Any lingering doubts on the US stance can be said to have been resolved once and for all by the letter of admonition written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by a group of Congresspersons. Dated May 2nd, the letter authored by members of key Congressional foreign relations committees seeks—baldly stated–to browbeat the Indian government into dropping energy-based ties with Iran.  Congressional approval is required for the implementation of the 123 agreement.  In their letter, rabidly pro-Israeli Congressman Tom Lantos and other signatories have implied that this approval could be jeopardized if India persists in her current path of engagement with Iran. [2] One cannot but pause to take in the implications of this letter of unsolicited advice. The letter comes at a time when US power is confronting unprecedented challenges. Beyond the borders of North America, the signs of an empire besieged or in decline are unmistakable—the ever-worsening debacle in Iraq, in Afghanistan the return of the "vanquished" Taliban, open rebellion on the part of the erstwhile fiefdom in Latin America, the resurgence of Russia as a global power and in China growing military and economic clout. Not less unpropitious are developments on the domestic front which is currently the scene of an unremitting procession of Bush Administration scandals and an ever-burgeoning fiscal crisis with the housing market meltdown as the latest symptom and the looming specter of economic recession in the not too distant future. Given the clouds hanging over Washington, the naïve might have thought that the U.S. Congress had a surfeit of perplexities on its plate and that a modicum of humility might be in order. Apparently such is not the case. The extraordinarily bullying letter written to the Prime Minister of India by spokespersons for the US Congress can be expected to go on record as a triumph of hubris over sober recognition of the collapse of empire.

When a comprehensive history of Indo-US relations addresses the progressive closeness that was initiated in the nineties and intensified in the last half decade, future chroniclers are certain to take note of the discrepancy between successive phases of Indo-US engagement in the Manmohan Singh years. The first phase was inaugurated by the announcement on July 18, 2005 of the Bush-Manmohan Singh agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation between the US and India. This is the period that witnessed ignominious surrender on India’s part to the US diktat particularly in the matter of India’s relations with Iran. By skilful exploitation of energy-starved India’s hopes related to the nuclear deal, the Bush Administration was able to arm-twist India into joining the US and its allies in censoring Iran’s nuclear program and paving the way for imposition of sanctions. During this period the crucial IPI pipeline project was shelved in deference to US demands. The IPI project is vital to India’s interests because of its relevance to the issue of energy security and also because it has the potential for laying the foundations of economic interdependence between India and Pakistan and thereby alleviating the hostilities that have bedeviled relations between the two countries. Although US hostility to the project remains as virulent as ever, since early 2007 a series of high-level statements emanating from the Ministries of External Affairs and Petroleum have conveyed unequivocal support for the IPI project. As recently as May 8 Petroleum Minister Murli Deora affirmed in Parliament that India would not surrender to US threats and that Energy Secretary Sam Bodman had been informed that US interference in the IPI project was unwarranted. The pipeline project could well be the barometer for a cooling off in Indo-US relations and an end to the period of abject submission to US requirements.

A rift seems to exist between the White House and Congress on the issue of civilian nuclear cooperation with India. With the backing of the State Department, the White House has all along displayed keenness, even anxiety, to make the civilian nuclear agreement operational by securing the necessary Congressional endorsements and by intervening at critical moments to eliminate or soften deal-breaking clauses in the legislation that was eventually approved by Congress. Spokespersons for the White House have claimed that the United States has adopted the policy of helping India to become a great power in the twenty-first century. [3] For them, the Indo-US agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation is a logical corollary of this policy since—in the long term–nuclear energy is expected to form a component of India’s energy security.  As is invariably the case, official doctrine serves as a mask for less openly admissible agenda.  The recent article by Nicholas Burns with its allusions to expansion in Indo-US joint military exercises and defense sales is more explicit about US expectations from the so-called strategic partnership with India. "This has nothing to do with energy" [4] was the forthright response of distinguished journalist Siddharth Varadarajan who has commented extensively in other contexts on the stake that a militarily overstretched US has in building a strong defense relationship with India and outsourcing activities at the lower end of the military food chain. [5] Trapped in the mind-set that dates back to the period of unquestioned US supremacy, the era defined by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the invasion of Iraq, the legislative branch of the US government appears to be oblivious to the strategic reasons for using the Indo-US nuclear agreement as an instrument for harnessing India’s military strengths and thereby prolonging the global hegemony of the United States. 

In his best-selling book "In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India", Financial Times journalist Edward Luce has pointed out that India is not like Britain or Japan a declining power that will follow America’s lead on most global issues and cautioned the US against taking India for granted. [6] The worthy Congresspersons who signed the letter of reproof to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would have done well to pay heed to this insight. Their recent communication is of a piece with previous arm-twisting acts, notably the coercion of India’s vote at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in September 2005 on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Although there have been attempts on the part of the pro-US strategic community to represent India’s IAEA vote as the outcome of due deliberation [7], the question can be considered to have been resolved once and for all by the explicit admission of Stephen Rademaker, former US Assistant Secretary. India’s overnight reversal of existing Iran policy was widely viewed as abject surrender to US pressure even before evidence thereof was provided almost a year and a half later in articles that appeared in the Hindu [8] and on Znet. [9] Clearly the demand for craven submission has been made once too often, and this time around Indian compliance is not forthcoming. The independent and uncompromising stand that India’s policymakers are finally taking on the IPI project and the Iran issue in general indicates that India is no longer willing to sacrifice its economic, strategic and cultural ties with Iran in the name of the so-called Indo-US partnership.  The IPI project if implemented could serve as the foundational stone for a twenty-first century Asian energy architecture with an infrastructure of pipelines crisscrossing Asian nations and binding them in relations of economic interdependence. This architecture as envisioned by India’s former Petroleum Minister, the dynamic and visionary Mani Shankar Aiyar, is expected to break Western dominance over Asian energy resources and turn Asia into an industrial powerhouse. 

The old but useful cliché of better late than never applies to the new-found assertiveness of policymakers in India. And while welcoming their refusal to yield to US pressure, it is relevant to recognize that Indian democracy is finally reaping the fruits of unremitting resistance from the Left Parties and a vibrant media and civil society to India’s seemingly inexorable gravitation toward the US orbit was. The Left Parties, themselves a component of the ruling coalition, have played an exemplary role by keeping vigilant watch over the unfolding of the nuclear cooperation agreement. They have compensated for the absence of a principled Opposition by questioning policies based on subservience to the US and taking the Manmohan Singh government to task at critical junctures on its tendency to compromise the national sovereignty of India. An ongoing torrent of editorials and articles on the Indo-US nuclear agreement in the media have fostered critical thought on the issue and created a high level of awareness in the public. Terms that were once only known to nuclear scientists have been brought into household usage. The community of nuclear scientists has made a highly visible contribution to the national debate on the nuclear deal and has been particularly tenacious in cautioning against the acceptance of an agreement on conditions that are discriminatory to India. Were it not for the weight of domestic public opinion, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s negotiators might have yielded far more ground to the US on the 123 agreement.  After a prolonged period of toeing the US line, dissent appears to have become the order of the day.  This turn of affairs is completely in keeping with the fact that the legacy of the war of independence of 1857, regarded as the most significant armed challenge encountered by nineteenth century Western imperialism in the colonized world, has just been recalled by its 150th anniversary.  


1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2007/04/27/AR2007042702014.html
2. http://www.hindu.com/2007/05/06/stories/2007050604280800.htm
3. http://newdelhi.usembassy.gov/ambmar312005.html
4. http://www.hindu.com/2007/05/02/stories/2007050202901000.htm
5. An example is found in  http://www.frontlineonnet.com/fl2305/stories/20060324007700400.htm
6. Luce, Edward.  "In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India," New York: Doubleday, 2007. p.281-2.
7. "A Good Deal," Sumit Ganguly, Dinshaw Mistry. Outlook. October 20, 2006.
8. http://www.hindu.com/2007/02/16/stories/2007021605671200.htm
9. http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12381

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