India: Indo-US Nuclear Deal Remains in the Balance


Dr Auriol Weigold

The US State Department has said that President Bush's India policy is premised on the belief that no other relationship will be more important in shaping the world of the 21st century. One of the key determinants of this relationship is the India-US nuclear deal - the outcome of which remains ambiguous.

While 'some advances have been made' on the civil nuclear deal with the US, according to External Affairs Minister, Mukherjee, on 19th June, President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met on the sidelines of the G8 Summit and both went home, looking for ways to break the deadlock, reported Foreign Secretary Menon.

However, the lengthy negotiations on section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act, 1954, that deals with such agreements and will operationalise the Henry J Hyde US-India Atomic Energy Cooperation Act, signed on 18 December 2006, have failed to resolve outstanding issues. The key sticking points are India's right to future nuclear testing and its requirement to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. It is the latter that preoccupies media coverage in late June and has pushed other US leverage points such objections to the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, part of the long-standing and broad-ranging Indo-Iranian relationship, out of the frame.

Under-Secretary of State, Nicholas Burns, US negotiator in the most recent round of talks, sees reprocessing rights without a raft of safeguards around currently operating reprocessing plants as a 'deal-killer' in Washington as all of India's existing reprocessing units are in the military arena. Indian officials have underlined the centrality of its 'right' to reprocess fuel for future fast-breeder reactors, its long-term nuclear program. As a responsible State with advanced nuclear technology, and recognised as such by the US, should not India have the same advantages as other States including the US, is the question posed.

The American side projects the danger of reprocessed nuclear fissile material turning up in the non-safeguarded facilities, as India has refused to open all its nuclear facilities to IAEA inspectors. The US House of Representatives are now of the view that the US is giving away 'too much for too little from India'.

The Indian side sees this as a lack of trust.

Is compromise possible or even desirable? Sections of the Hyde Act, deemed unacceptable by India have been re-badged by President Bush as 'advisory' only. Would this undertaking that provisions in the Act unacceptable to India, be recognised by a future US President?

In a two-step advance, Burns, firstly, offered to keep the reprocessing issue open until the building of the next fast-breeder reactor, to be placed within safeguards. As this is going to take time, it buys time. For historical reasons this was unacceptable to India which has, in turn, offered to build a new reprocessing plant to be placed under international safeguards.

Whether or not this offer from India allays the fears of Washington sceptics may be played out in the proposed meeting between Secretaries Rice and Mukherjee in India in July. If not, time is becoming a factor as the US presidential election campaign begins to dominate political activity in coming months.

WATCHPOINT: As the Indo-US nuclear stalemate continues into another month, this element of the US 'chessboard for 21st century grand strategy' is not yet in place. In a global sense America may have already reached the limits of compromise. In a national sense India may have too. Giving away perceived national sovereignty may be a greater loss for India than the failure of the Henry J Hyde Atomic Energy Cooperation Act.


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