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Academic storm in nuke cup - US letter suggests deal can be terminated if India tests

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By K.P. NAYAR
  • Published 4.09.08
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Minneapolis/St. Paul (Minnesota), Sept. 3: The issue of testing a bomb has unexpectedly returned to haunt the Indo-US nuclear deal and the process that begins in Vienna tomorrow of exempting India from the global rules for trade in nuclear weapons and technology.

Ending nine months of silence over the factual and legal US reaction to any new nuclear tests by India, Howard Berman, chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, yesterday released correspondence between his committee and the Bush administration on the nuclear deal.

“The fuel supply assurances are not... meant to insulate India against the consequences of a nuclear explosive test or a violation of non-proliferation commitments,” according to the US state department in its letter to Berman’s committee.

The correspondence makes it clear that the US could terminate the deal if New Delhi conducts another test and that Washington’s assurances on supplying nuclear fuel are not legally binding.

The Indian Opposition said the correspondence contradicted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s assurances to Parliament that India was not constrained from conducting further tests and that the country was entitled under the deal to build fuel supplies “for the lifetime of India’s reactors”.

A political storm has broken in India but much of the discussion is academic. With or without the Hyde Act, with or without the nuclear deal, US laws that pre-date its new friendship with India require instant and automatic sanctions if New Delhi conducts another test.

These laws universally apply to any country — other than the five recognised nuclear powers under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — that tests a bomb. The tough sanctions imposed on India in 1998 after Pokhran II were the result of such legislation, still on US statutes. Besides, by most accounts, India does not need to carry out another test in the foreseeable future, which pre-empts the need for violating the agreement.

Berman’s revelations may, however, complicate US efforts in Vienna tomorrow to get approval from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) for an exemption for India from the group’s rules. The US will now have no answer to countries which will ask why the NSG is being asked to exempt India under conditions that are lighter than the ones Washington has stipulated -- albeit in secret -- for trading in nuclear equipment and technology with India.

There is a view in Vienna, however, that yesterday’s revelation could persuade moderate dissidents in the NSG to support the India-specific exemption on the ground that the US, as the architect of the deal, could be relied on to be tough with India.

In January, the state department had asked Berman’s predecessor, Tom Lantos, to keep the contents of its 26-page letter secret, obviously anticipating that making it public could undercut the UPA government’s ability to carry the country and Parliament along in the efforts to operationalise the deal.

Lantos, a steadfast supporter of the deal, died in February this year and Berman, a firm opponent of nuclear co-operation with India except under strict conditions, decided this week to release the letter. Its contents were first published this morning in The Washington Post.

The letter says the “US government will not assist India in the design, construction or operation of sensitive nuclear technologies” although the Indo-US joint statement announcing the nuclear deal explicitly stated that “as a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology, India should acquire the same benefits and advantages as other such states”.

The joint statement by Singh and President George W. Bush on July 18, 2005, also said: “The President told the Prime Minister that he will work to achieve full civil nuclear energy co-operation with India as it realises its goals of promoting nuclear power and achieving energy security.”

The state department assured the Congress in its letter that the 123 Agreement to operationalise the deal is fully in conformity with the Hyde Act, which contains provisions that India has rejected.

However, the Prime Minister’s Office on July 2 this year had said “the 123 Agreement clearly overrides the Hyde Act and this position would be clear to anyone who goes through the provisions”.