Managing 45 countries, part of an elite cartel controlling the world's nuclear trade, was never going to be easy. The inconclusive meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) that ended in Vienna on August 22 after two days of hectic deliberations was in a way along predictable lines.
The NSG members were to agree by consensus whether its existing ban on trade in civilian nuclear energy with a country like India, that has neither signed the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nor the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), should be lifted. Many of the countries in the group have no nuclear technology to sell. But they have a strong sense of sovereignty and a strong position on nuclear non-proliferation. Some, like Austria and New Zealand, are going to face an election shortly and, therefore, do not want to give the impression that they are diluting their position to accommodate a non signatory of the NPT.
Indeed, all NSG decisions are taken by consensus and that is why the views of every single country in the 45-member group become so important. If one of them wants, they can easily play spoiler. Although, earlier in the month, at least 19 of them, who are also in the 35-member board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, had unanimously agreed to a "safeguards" agreement between India and the agency. They all seemed to have bought IAEA Director General Mohammed Al Baradei's argument that it would serve the world better if most of the Indian nuclear plants -14 out of the 22- were brought under the agency's supervision and inspection.
However, neither the outcome of the IAEA negotiations nor the draft, prepared and circulated by the Americans seeking an "exemption" for India, seemed to have helped NSG members to come to a conclusion and air it in one voice. The 45 members of the group will reassemble again on September 4/5 either in Vienna or Berlin - since Germany now has the chair of the NSG - to take yet another shot at the proposed "waiver" that is being sought for India. This time they will deliberate on a changed draft that should accommodate some of the "concerns" expressed by the NSG members on what happens to global non-proliferation, if special concessions are made for India.
The Indo-US nuclear deal that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W Bush plan to sign cannot be implemented unless it gets the final approval from the American Congress. But before that India needs a "safeguards" agreement with the IAEA and a "waiver" from the NSG.
Getting the NSG to lift its current ban is only part of the Indian worry. It also has to worry about whether the "waiver" from the NSG leaves it with enough time to put it before the US Congress for the final approval before its session ends on September 26. After that the Congress will only reassemble in January next year as for the next few months the focus in the US will be on the presidential elections. Moreover, the January session, which is only for a day, is kept for the ‘State of the Union' by President Bush - his last address to the nation before he hands over the mantle to the next president of the country.
In the US system, a Bill - in this case the 123 agreement that seeks civil nuclear cooperation between India and the US - that has not got Congressional approval is not "carried forward."
But the scenario may not be as bleak. Some optimists in South Block even say that it has more than "80 per cent chance" of seeing it through the NSG. But two things are important for that -first, the language of the new draft and to what extent India feels comfortable in accepting the changed wordings and second, whether the schedule in the US Congress can be reworked.
Pranab Mukherjee, a key player in the negotiations, has made it clear that India will not accept any "prescriptive conditionalities" in the changed draft. But he has also maintained that India will carefully look at the changes in the draft before accepting it.
There were 20 amendments brought in by the NSG members at Vienna. But only three to four are of any serious nature. One of the main area of concern for the group is what happens if after the "waiver" is granted and India conducts another nuclear test? Many of them are worried that the group should bring in a provision to the draft that will allow it to call off all trade with New Delhi if it conducts a test in future.
India had voluntarily announced a moratorium on further tests after the May 1998 Pokhran II tests. But it has not signed the CTBT that prevents countries from conducting further tests. So far India has fallen back on the US Congress' refusal to ratify the CTBT to gain time. But a Democrat president and a US Congress dominated by the Democrats may allow Washington to ratify the CTBT. If that happens, there will be considerable pressure on India to also sign and ratifythe treaty.
The other concerns raised by some in the NSG are about transfer of enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) technology to India. Though the US has indicated in the Hyde Act that in special cases it may consider transferring ENR technology to India, many in New Delhi are skeptical about it since Washington is very cagey about giving it to any country.
However, there are countries like Russia and France in the NSG who may not be averse to sharing such technology with India if they are assured of a bigger share in the Indian civil nuclear market. Proposed amendments in the NSG are therefore being sought - some feel on American instigation - to ensure that before such technology is transferred to India it has to be approved by the NSG. India feels that it is a decision that should be taken by countries that are willing to transfer the technology and not through a consensus of all the 45-members of the NSG, especially, since most of them, have no such technology to sell.
A lot will now depend on how the new draft has been worded by the Americans. The language in the text will have to be acceptable to India and also to the NSG members, particularly those, who had serious problems with the earlier draft. Indian and American officials feel that though there may be "a lot of rhetoric" the final wordings of the new text will not be something that New Delhi will feel uncomfortable about. If that happens, it has a very good chance of getting approved by the NSG at their next meeting in September.
Once the draft is approved by the NSG, it will have to be put before the US Congress. But, according to its rules, a prior notice of 30 days is required for the Congress to consider the Bill.
There are perhaps three options that India and the US government can look for to get out of this spot. One, it can seek a waiver on the 30-day period notice and ask the Congress to take it up within a shorter period of time. But if that happens, it will also allow any member of the US Senate to seek amendments to the proposed Bill. Therefore, care has to be taken in not only getting a waiver on the 30 day notice period but also an assurance from the Republican and Democrat party Senators that they will not seek any amendments.
The second option is to get both the Republican and Democrats to agree for a "lame-duck" session towards the end of the year to get the Bill passed. The only problem with this is that the democrats will have to be convinced that the Bush administration will not try to sneak in any other controversial Bill along with it.
The third and perhaps the last option is to hope that President George Bush, while delivering his ‘state of the union' address, also includes the Bill for cooperation in civil nuclear field between India and US. This he can do through a ‘presidential determination' - which in effect means that he feels the Bill should be passed by the next administration without any changes as it is of vital interest to US' foreign policy.
Which of these three options they will ultimately fall back on may depend on whether the Democrats under Barack Obama feel as strongly about India as the Bush administration does. But with Joe Biden as Obama's running mate, more people in the Indian establishment have started hoping that the Indo-US nuclear deal will finally pass all the hurdles.
The writer is Editor, Strategic and Foreign Affairs, IANS