August 4, 2007

4,5,6: next steps in the deal

This article originally appeared in The Indian Express on August 4, 2007.

To use American President George Bush’s famously improvised verb, don’t misunderestimate the ayatollahs of non-proliferation. Yes, the so-called 123 Agreement — the text of which was made public by the US and Indian governments yesterday — was finalised two weeks ago, after nine rounds of intense negotiation. The agreement effectively consummates the bilateral nuclear deal unveiled by President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh two years ago. Calculated leaks of the 123 Agreement’s contents by the Indian government resulted in positive reviews from many erstwhile detractors. The Hindu, citing “senior officials”, reported last week that the agreement fulfilled “all the assurances Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave Parliament in August 2006”. The vociferous nuclear scientists have also acquiesced. “Prima facie, it looks like a victory for India,” said Indian Nuclear Society President Placid Rodrigues. M.R. Srinivasan, the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, previously a scathing critic of the deal, agreed: “I think it is a good package. I think India’s vital concerns have been finally addressed.”

But the Indian satisfaction could also spell difficulties for the deal’s future. Assuming the conclusion of a satisfactory Indian arrangement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and following the approval of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the 123 Agreement will have to be ratified by the US Congress for active civil nuclear cooperation between the US and India to begin. Bush’s weak political stock as well as further concessions granted to India in the 123 Agreement means that US critics of the deal, largely silenced following the overwhelming passage of the enabling legislation by Congress last year, are regrouping.

Opposition to the deal in the United States comes from a few distinct groups, with differing attitudes towards US nuclear policy and India in general. First, there are those who believe the deal is not in the United States’s best national interests: that the Bush administration has given India too much and asked for nothing in exchange. In return, they claim, many Indians, rather than welcoming the deal for freeing India from its technological shackles, have been nothing but ungrateful.

A similar view is expressed by some academics and policymakers such as Harvard University’s Ashton Carter, who believe the US should strive to get more from India in return for the nuclear deal. “In isolation, one must conclude that the deal was a bad one for the United States,” Carter told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April last year. “Rather than subtracting from the Indian side of the ledger in an effort to rebalance the India Deal, Congress should instead emphasise what the US expects on its side of the ledger to give meaning to the new ‘strategic partnership’.”

In addition, there are those who believe that strong American relations with India are positive and valuable but that the nuclear agreement is a misguided way to go about strengthening bilateral ties. The deal, they say, weakens the global non-proliferation regime, and smacks of American hypocrisy, given its contrasting attitude towards the nuclear programmes of North Korea and Iran. This view is espoused by many, including influential Congressional aides and several liberal US legislators, many of whom voiced their opposition to the Hyde Act last year.

These sentiments are shared by some leading South Asia analysts. Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center is among those to have expressed displeasure with the 123 Agreement. “The Bush administration should not make it easier for New Delhi to resume nuclear testing and to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons,” he wrote in a release last week. “It appears that the 123 Agreement fails to meet these minimal standards as well as the clear requirements established in the Hyde Act.”

Further opposition comes from individuals, including many supporters of Israel, who are genuinely — albeit mistakenly — worried about Indo-Iranian economic and strategic ties. They fail to realise that, despite talk of a “strategic partnership” and “civilisational ties”, the India-Iran military relationship is small-scale, with no major equipment transfers and only sporadic informal interactions between their armed forces. From an energy security standpoint, Iran is only the fourth largest supplier of oil to India, accounting for merely 10 per cent of India’s total imports. And despite the diatribes emanating from populist politicians and leftist intellectuals, Indian attitudes and policies regarding Iran’s nuclear programme are frequently in alignment with those of the US. Not only did India twice cast votes against Iran at the IAEA, but, according to a Pew poll conducted last year, 59 per cent of Indians oppose acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, compared to only 25 per cent who approve.

Lastly, there is lingering resentment in Congressional circles against the Bush administration for failing to consult with Congress on the nuclear deal. Key Congressional staffers have claimed, with slight exaggeration, that Indian officials have met with them more frequently than have their American counterparts. In addition, Bush’s opponents in Congress may want to deny him his biggest foreign policy victory. The last several months have been marked by wrangling between Congress and the White House on a breadth of issues. The nuclear deal could be used by the Democrat-dominated Congress to assail Bush’s policies and accuse the White House of abusing its executive privileges.

On the whole, however, there is a good probability that the 123 Agreement will be ratified by Congress. A vote cast against the agreement could be considered tantamount to a vote against India. And given the growing political clout of India and Indian-Americans, the political ramifications for individual members of Congress could be more than slightly damaging.