India running out of time

26 February 2008

Challenges facing Indian leaders are growing more acute as time runs short for nuclear trade deals. The US-India deal is now jeopardised by the American election schedule, while talks with the IAEA have been slow and a cascade of other deals are on hold.


The main deal Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh wants to conclude concerns nuclear cooperation between his country and the USA - the so-called 123 Agreement. The final text for this has been stuck in the Indian parliament since August last year, stalled by opposition from his communist allies that claim the deal infringes Indian sovereignty. Those voices have not diminished, despite American diplomatic efforts.


Now, time is beginning to run short for President George Bush's administration in the USA as the November Presidential election approaches. Three US senators visiting India last week to hurry up the deal said the country needs to accept the text quickly and return it for a final vote in the USA before July - otherwise it would have to be renegotiated under a new President.


However, before India can approve the deal text it must also conclude a specific nuclear materials safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). On that front too there are problems: negotiations began in November 2007 but are not yet complete, and could miss their own deadline when IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei is expected to report on the matter to his board of governors in March.


Watching in the wings are the Nuclear Suppliers Group's (NSG's) 43 member states, which will be called upon to amend guidelines for international nuclear trade. Currently India is excluded due to its refusal to sign the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NSG is expected to make a special exemption for India, based on the IAEA agreement and the precedent set by provisions in the US-India text.


It is already known that at least three more bilateral deals would follow NSG acceptance and/or the IAEA safeguards agreement: with France, Russia and the UK. Those with France and Russia are reportedly ready for signature, but on ice until the preparatory deals are made. The UK-India deal is under preparation.


Indian planners hope that the ability to purchase advanced nuclear power reactors from globalised suppliers could accelerate its nuclear energy program significantly. Acceptance of India by the NSG would also allow India to export its own reactors.