New Delhi : A nuclear accord hailed as the centerpiece of India's new friendship with the United States appears to be in jeopardy, as politicians here argue about whether its limitations on their nuclear activities offend the country's sense of sovereignty.
The accord, which was announced by US President George Bush last year and approved by American Congress, is now mired in the swamp of history and complicated politics of non-proliferation.
Indian officials say that in negotiations that have dragged out for months, they have been unable to cut through a central knot: Will the US treat India as a nuclear weapons state, which can test its weapons and make its own nuclear fuel?
Those issues are proving more difficult to unravel than anyone anticipated. The disputes have come up as the two countries have tried to negotiate a specific accord, known as the “123 agreement”, which could prohibit India from conducting further nuclear weapons tests, and put restrictions on reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. The “123” refers to a section of the US Atomic Energy Act.
The US fears that the reprocessed fuel could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium for a new generation of nuclear weapons, undermining Bush's argument that the unusual deal with India would aid non-proliferation.
While those issues sound abstruse, they have become the subject of daily, heated debate in India, driven chiefly by the country's influential atomic scientists. And as that debate has splashed across the front pages here, there are questions of whether the US is meddling in India's internal and defence affairs—always a delicate issue.
The deal is not necessarily doomed. But the sticking points are so politically contentious that they make it extremely difficult for either President Bush or Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to break the impasse easily.
US and Indian negotiators conferred this week on the sidelines of a meeting of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group in South Africa, but failed to hammer out a final deal. Washington has made it clear that it has already made plenty of concessions to Indian demands, and administration officials have openly stepped up pressure.
“We are frustrated it has taken this long," R. Nicholas Burns, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, said in a telephone interview from Washington on Thursday. “We would have hoped for faster progress. But we do not doubt their good faith. We are friends. We will get through this.”
Burns said the Indian foreign secretary, Shivshankar Menon, had been invited to Washington for talks early next month, and Burns then plans to travel to India.
Completion of the deal will determine whether India can buy nuclear fuel and reactors from the United States or anywhere else. Until the 123 agreement is sealed, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a loose organization of countries that sell nuclear equipment and material, will not open the doors to nuclear commerce with India.
The US-India nuclear pact, announced in March 2006, would allow India access to civilian nuclear technology, overturning a decades-old ban that resulted from India's refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. India has possessed nuclear weapons for 30 years, and in 1998 it tested its weapons—a test that Pakistan answered with one of its own.
But India also wants to generate nuclear power to meet its growing energy demand. In exchange for the right to buy reactors and fuel on the world market, it has agreed to allow international inspections of its civilian nuclear facilities, which it has promised to segregate from its military arsenal.
Congress last year gave its initial approval to the administration to allow the sale of nuclear technology to India. The congressional blessing was advertised in Washington and New Delhi as a signal of India's growing importance to the US, and it was the source of intense lobbying in the latter country.
The deal was opposed by many groups concerned with non-proliferation, which argued that the Bush administration was setting a bad precedent by agreeing to sell nuclear technology and fuel to a country that for years has declined to join the non-proliferation treaty. Opponents of the deal argued that Bush won no limits on the development of new Indian nuclear weapons.
For his part, Singh expended considerable political capital on selling the deal in India, where distrust of US interests prevails, particularly among atomic scientists and the government's Leftist allies.
“Were this deal to collapse now, after so much effort and hype, it would represent a substantial setback for the emerging partnership between the two countries,” Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said in an email message. “It would probably be many years before either side was willing to take political risks to rejuvenate the relationship.”
Some opponents of the deal in Washington say they would be happy to see it collapse because of objections in New Delhi, leaving the Bush administration to argue that it came through with its part of the bargain, winning passage in Congress. Congress would also have to vote on a final agreement on nuclear cooperation.
The deal appears to have been further muddied by an indictment, made public earlier this month, charging officials at a private company, called Cirrus, with buying prohibited weapons technology for Indian government agencies.
The indictment drew new heckles from the non-proliferation lobby in the US and put new pressure on the government in New Delhi.
India's atomic scientists have been among the most influential critics of the nuclear deal, consistently protesting that it would nip the country's ability to advance its strategic programme, for instance, by carrying out more nuclear tests. India has promised a moratorium on tests, but as a Times of India editorial put it last Saturday, "it would like, as an assertion of national sovereignty, to retain the theoretical right to conduct further tests."
Bharat Karnad, a strategic analyst with the Center for Policy Research here, maintained that India should not agree to any deal that kept it from acquiring nuclear weapons. “Our non-proliferation interests simply cannot be reconciled,” he said of India and the US. India, he added, seeks to “enjoy the privileges and prerogatives of a nuclear state.”
“Testing is the pivot on which the whole thing rests,” Karnad argued. “It's the symbol of our strategic independence.”
The other important sticking point is the right to reprocess spent fuel, an enterprise that the Americans fear would allow India to generate plutonium for its weapons programmes. India says it needs the reprocessed fuel for civilian use alone.
The fuel dispute is as symbolic as it is practical, tinged with historical memory. In 1974, after India's first nuclear tests, the US cut off its supply of nuclear fuel for a reactor at Tarapur, in western India.
Indians to this day are fond of recalling that the Americans had originally agreed to provide a lifetime supply of fuel for the reactor.
The logjam is all the more serious for the timing. The longer the negotiations drag on, the closer it gets to US elections in 2008 and Indian elections in 2009. There is considerable goodwill in India for all things American, but in this deeply nationalistic body politic, anti-American sentiment can also be deployed as a political tool, and Singh's government can hardly be seen to be bending too much to US pressure.
“The pressure on both sides is time pressure,” a senior Indian official said.
—David E. Sanger contributed to this story from Washington.