Jul 2, 2008

Clearing the IAEA Mountain

There is a prevailing sentiment in India that the next steps on the nuclear deal will be a cakewalk. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The immediate goal for India is to start walking down the sterile corridor leading to the room in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna where the board of governors will meet, whenever the government decides to approach the IAEA.
All who expect the 35 IAEA board members to rubber stamp the ‘India-Specific Safeguards Agreement’ may be in for a surprise. It is this unique ‘India specificity’ that is likely to give many food for thought — and diplomatic indigestion to the ambassadors who meet in Vienna.
But what is this ‘unique status’ that India seeks? The best articulation on this ‘India specificity’ came from External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee when he told Parliament on December 28, 2007, that “we are insisting that we will like to ensure in the India-specific safeguard arrangements with the IAEA; assurance of fuel supply, right of India to have clear strategic reserves to meet the situation in the case of uninterrupted fuel supply, if it is interrupted, if there is a breakdown to meet that situation, there should be a strategic reserve for the fuel and the recognition of our strategic programme by accepting the separation plan.” These are unusual guarantees India has sought from the IAEA.
The standard safeguards agreement is a sort of a cast-in-steel model that has been passed by the 144-member States of the IAEA in 1968. Any deviation from this standard mould is not likely to go down without intense questioning. The first hints that the going may not be easy came when last week Abdul S. Minty, a South African disarmament guru, member of the IAEA board of governors and immediate past Chairman of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) said, “The safeguards agreement would not be that dissimilar from the many others that the IAEA has agreed into with India and hence in that sense it would not be an India Specific Safeguards Agreement although it deals only with India.”
After the last visit of the Indian negotiating team to Vienna three months ago, the only official word that emerged was that “considerable progress” had been made. So it is not surprising that the member States still seem blissfully unaware of the amendments India seeks to make in this multilateral legal instrument.
Notwithstanding the hurdle that ‘India specificity’ may pose, getting a nod from the IAEA may be easier as it works through a simple vote. If the majority of the 35 countries vote in India’s favour, the country just may cross this hurdle. It is really the next step of going to the NSG that gives even some of the most pro-nuclear deal Western diplomats the jitters. The US has to ‘shepherd’ India’s case by putting forth a draft text of the waiver it seeks for initiating nuclear commerce with India.
It will be a giant leap of faith as India has no entry at the 45-nation cartel that controls all nuclear commerce. India desires a “clean, clear and unconditional exemption” from it. Easier said than done, since the NSG came into existence only to contain India after the 1974 Pokhran nuclear explosion, and like most clubs it is quirky, holding its deliberations in secret. The rules of this atomic cartel are such that all decisions have to be taken only on the basis of a ‘consensus’. Thus, even a small country like Ireland can stop the deal. Others known to be unfavourably inclined include uranium exporting giant Australia, New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries.
On this long, lonely and necessary atomic marathon, there are nuclear ambushes, safeguards’ snares and diplomatic minefields. One can only hope that the UPA government is not courting death without securing martyrdom

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