Washington: India has given the kiss of life to a civilian nuclear deal with the US but the American Congress may not have enough time to give it the mandatory approval under President George W. Bush’s tenure, experts say.
Aside from a tight 2008 US legislative calendar ahead of the November presidential elections, nuclear-armed India has to devise stringent safeguards to cushion the landmark deal from proliferation concerns.
Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to embark on the ambitious venture as part of a strategic partnership about three years ago, but Singh and his Congress party only now appeared to have overcome domestic political hurdles to push ahead with it.
There may be even bigger hurdles for the deal, under which the US will provide energy-starved India civilian nuclear fuel and technology.
Tough time: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after a joint press briefing in Sapporo, Japan, on Tuesday. He said the withdrawal of Left party backing would not affect the stability of his coalition government (Photo by: Jewel Samad/AFP)
India has to first gain approval for a set of nuclear proliferation safeguards from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global nuclear watchdog, which could meet late this month to consider the issue.
Then, the Asian power, which is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), has to win a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to conduct atomic commerce.
The 45-member group of nuclear technology exporting nations could consider India’s case in September.
IAEA and NSG approvals are mandatory before the US Congress can debate possibly in September the deal’s operational agreement that was reached about a year ago by the two governments.
“It is certainly possible for the deal to move forward but the delays up until now have made it very unlikely that this Congress will have enough time to approve it,” said Sharon Squassoni, a specialist in weapons of mass destruction proliferation who once served in government and provided congressional advice.
Although the deal was given overwhelming approval in 2006 by the US House of Representatives and Senate, as a partnership centrepiece for the world’s two biggest democracies, she expects lawmakers now to question “some of the shortcomings from a non-proliferation perspective”.
Aside from having general IAEA safeguards, US law also requires India to make “substantial progress towards concluding an additional protocol” giving enhanced access and information and inspection techniques to the nuclear agency, she said.
“India has not held a single meeting on this additional protocol,” Squassoni said. “Although it is a voluntary safeguards strengthening measure, many states view it as a new benchmark for nuclear supplies and this, in fact, has been discussed in the NSG.”
“I don’t anticipate anything is going to get to this Congress when it resumes (after the summer break) in September,” she said.
A key House legislator, Gary Ackerman, said he was uncertain if there was enough time under the Bush administration to consider the deal.
“Possible? Yes. Probable? No,” he was reported saying.
The New York Times warned against rushing through the deal, saying Bush gave away far too much and got far too little for it.
There was “no promise” from India to stop producing bomb-making material or not to expand its nuclear arsenal or not to resume nuclear testing, it said in a weekend editorial. At a minimum, it said, the US must insist that international suppliers halt nuclear trade if India carried out another nuclear test, as it last did in 1998.
“This is not an ordinary situation because India is asserting that the (IAEA) safeguards agreement can be terminated by India if foreign (nuclear) fuel supplies are interrupted even if India conducts a test,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association. “That assertion should be flatly rejected by the director general of the IAEA and member states,” he said. “Otherwise this would make a mockery of the principle of permanent safeguards.”