Washington, Oct. 14: The Indo-US nuclear deal is not dead.
Contrary to the general perception, there is not even any slowdown in the operationalisation of the deal based on political considerations.
According to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sources in Vienna, India has concluded that it wants to put off signing an additional protocol and safeguards agreements with the IAEA.
In “informal” discussions, Indians in charge of operationalising the deal have told IAEA officials that they will sign these two documents only after the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) finds a way to allow its members to engage in nuclear commerce with India followed by an absolute certainty that the US Congress will vote for the 123 Agreement successfully negotiated between Washington and New Delhi.
This change in strategy is not because the Left parties appeared at one stage to have pushed the Manmohan Singh government to the wall, according to Indian officials who have been involved in the Vienna talks, a view that is shared by IAEA officials who have no interest or stake in India’s domestic political developments.
They said it became clear that India would be burning its boats if it blindly went ahead and signed an additional protocol and safeguards agreements with the UN’s nuclear watchdog without an exit route that took into account the constantly changing global non- proliferation environment and the US domestic political situation.
This realisation came from the challenge that under New Delhi’s “separation plan” to facilitate the deal and the subsequent 123 Agreement, India has to put its civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards in perpetuity.
That means if India signs the two IAEA agreements and then the NSG refuses to change its rules, not only the UPA government, but any future government will be trapped under intrusive oversight of its nuclear facilities while the global nuclear cartel continues its apartheid against New Delhi.
It could be worse if the US Congress rejects the 123 Agreement after India is stuck with new commitments to the IAEA, which it has avoided for decades.
Unlike India — which is not recognised internationally as a nuclear weapons state — the US, China, Russia and other recognised nuclear weapons states are allowed to withdraw any of their facilities from any dealings with the IAEA under the protocol for such states.
Officials at the IAEA, which is a natural hot-bed for non-proliferation ayatollahs, would like India’s agreements with the nuclear watchdog to be under “INFCIRC 153” which governs the commitments of non-nuclear weapons states to the IAEA.
Although IAEA director-general Mohamed ElBaradei is extremely sympathetic to India, it is the non-proliferation hawks who populate the organisation that officials from Trombay and South Block have to deal with for negotiations.
This situation is an exact repeat of the scenario in Washington where President George W. Bush was all for India while his negotiators on the ground unsuccessfully tried for over a year to tie India down in a 123 Agreement that would have frozen India’s nuclear programme.
India would like its dealings with the IAEA to be governed by “INFCIRC 66”, which was the basis for facility-specific safeguards in Tarapur, Kudankulam and even the Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad when it reprocesses spent fuel in what is known in nuclear parlance as “campaign mode” under temporary safeguards.
New Delhi also does not want any references to further nuclear testing or return of equipment in the event of testing in any agreement.
With all these speedbreakers coming up, there is a realisation within the government that talks with the IAEA are going to be as tough and time-consuming as the 123 negotiations which repeatedly took the nuclear deal to the brink of extinction.
Expediently, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have, however, used these genuine difficulties in proceeding with the atomic agency to give an impression to the Left parties that the government is going slow on negotiations with the IAEA to take their concerns into account.
A clear indication that talks with the IAEA would take time came last Monday when South Block transferred India’s governor to the IAEA Board, Sheel Kant Sharma, out of Vienna.
Sharma, who is being replaced by Saurabh Kumar, now ambassador to Ireland, had earlier been asked to stay on in the hope that talks with the IAEA could be wrapped up latest by November.