If energy is the sub theme of Indo-US relations, it is no different in the case of our relations with Iran. In an engaging coincidence, the two relationships are now tangling with each other.
While India wrestles with the US for an agreement that could unleash its nuclear power potential, it is also grappling with Iran on a vital arrangement that could bring millions of tonnes of natural gas to the energy-starved country.
Energy wise, let’s be clear, the Iranian deal is less of a pie-in-the-sky than the American one. The gas is there, and could be in India within a matter of years, but our ability to exploit nuclear energy in any scale requires surmounting considerable technological challenges—and it promises us energy nirvana only by 2040 or so.
Both have in-built hazards. The Iranian one is replete with political risks—the stability of the regime, its worrisome confrontation with the US, and the challenge of securing a pipeline that will bring the gas through the badlands of Iran and Pakistan to India.
The nuclear deal has both technological and political risks—the possibility of the US Congress torpedoing it or the failure of the fast-breeder programme.
Indian nuclear-reactor engineering is decades behind world standards. Where the world standard for reactors is around 1200MW, Indian reactors are mainly of 220MW, moving up to 540MW now.
India’s nuclear dreams rest on a three-stage plan that will culminate in thorium-based reactors that promise to give us limitless energy. To reach there, India must make the right technological and political choices now.
We are currently at the first stage where we are trying to get our pressurized heavy water reactors to produce enough plutonium from natural uranium to fuel the fast-breeder reactors, which will be the basis of stage two.
The fast breeders are so-called because they are supposed to use the plutonium from stage one to ‘breed’ more plutonium and Uranium-233 (U233). Theoretically such reactors ‘breed’ plutonium at a ratio of 1:1.4, but those figures have not been reached in practical terms. In stage three, power would be produced from advanced reactors with thorium and U233 as fuel, where the latter would be regenerated cyclically for an endless supply of nuclear power.
Indian reserves of natural uranium are very poor, but we have abundant thorium reserves and the success of the three-stage programme will be a major boost to energy security. The problem is that each stage is crucially dependent on the previous one. If we cannot produce enough plutonium to sustain our fast-breeder programme, we cannot reach stage three. To obviate this technical risk, we are entering into a nuclear deal with the US so as to persuade the global supplier cartel, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, to lift its embargo on the export of nuclear equipment and material to India. In exchange, we are promising to put our civilian nuclear power reactors under international safeguards.
The Iranian choice is more immediate. It rests currently on two deals, neither of which have been clinched—a January 2005 agreement to span 30 years for the delivery of five million tonnes per year of LNG beginning 2009-10 and a $7 billion pipeline to bring natural gas to India.
The first deal came unstuck when India voted, allegedly at America’s behest, to censure Iran’s nuclear activities at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board meeting in September 2005. Going by statements, the pipeline deal is on track, but it’s some way from even reaching financial closure.
The US has openly declared that it is against the two deals. Last April, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the US “had made very clear to India that we have concerns about their relationship with Iran.”
Efforts were made to introduce this issue into the Hyde Act passed by the US Congress to operationalize the Indo-US nuclear deal. However, as of now it is merely contained as a direction to the administration to get India to join the anti-Iran coalition.
On 2 May, Tom Lantos, chairman of the powerful House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs and six other leading Congressmen wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attacking India’s relations with Iran and warning that the Indo-US nuclear deal might be jeopardized by the continuation of these relations.
They demanded that India “sever military cooperation with Iran, and terminate India’s participation in the development of Iran’s energy sector.”
This congressional ultimatum can only serve to increase India’s caution over the US nuclear deal. By the same measure, New Delhi will also have to calculate the risks involved in the Iran arrangement. American friendship is important to India at a global level, while Iran is a crucial regional ally in relation to Afghanistan and Pakistan. One is the world’s pre-eminent economic and technology power, the other an energy superpower. No one said that the our ride to world power status would be easy.
Manoj Joshi keeps a close eye on geopolitics from his perch as the strategic affairs editor of the Hindustan Times. You can respond to the column by writing to email@example.com