Former chair of the Nuclear Suppliers Group says the fate of the India-U.S. nuclear deal would depend on the actual text the American side submits to the NSG.
Whether the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal is ‘dead or alive’ is really anybody’s guess. But among the crucial hurdles India has to overcome for the deal to be “operationalised” are finalising a Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and then getting the much-needed nod from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Ambassador Abdul S. Minty is South Africa’s disarmament guru and a member of the IAEA’s Board of Governors. He is also the immediate past chairman of the NSG. In an interview, Mr. Minty discusses the nuclear deal and the prospects for its smooth passage through these two hurdles.
What discussions has the NSG had on India’s participation in global nuclear trade?
This arose not in terms of general nuclear trade but as you know, the NSG has had restrictions on non-NPT members and it tries to control those nuclear supplies. India is one of those countries that should not be supplied with sensitive technologies because of its nuclear weapons programme. On this subject, what has come up is the request from the U.S. that in the context of U.S.-India agreement, the NSG should grant an exemption. In order to do that, the NSG rules have to be changed and for us to do that we need to discuss it formally, which the NSG has not done till now because it has to wait for the safeguards agreement between the IAEA and India and that has not been done. Indeed we, as IAEA Board members, have not even seen the text of the safeguards agreement. So procedurally I would say it would need at least, I suppose, a month after a decision has been taken to give that [safeguards] document to the IAEA Board, the members will then possibly need to take it back to their capitals to get instructions. Once the IAEA has formally approved the safeguards agreement, then the matter of the exemption can be taken up by the NSG.
So you have not seen the text of the safeguards agreement, or at least the draft.
No, the IAEA safeguards agreement has been discussed between the [IAEA] secretariat and India as is normal and as they finalise it they submit it to the Board and we would not have seen a document that has not been submitted.
How much time do you think it would take for a safeguards agreement of this kind, which is an ‘India specific safeguards agreement,’ to be finalised and passed by the IAEA Board?
No, the safeguards agreement would not be that dissimilar from the many others that 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. The term `India specific’ has been used in the NSG context, that they want an India-specific exemption.
How soon do you think the NSG can give a ‘clean clear exemption’ to India?
It would be sheer speculation because we will have to see the Safeguards Agreement and once that is completed we also would need to see the wording the U.S. submits for the exemption [to the NSG].
Has draft wording been placed before the NSG by the U.S. on what the exemption would be like?
The NSG has not formally considered this matter. It can only start the procedure once the Safeguards Agreement is complete with the IAEA. The way it will go will be that the U.S. would make a request formally for an exemption and once we have that wording and see the implications of that wording for all the members of the NSG, then they will be in a position to judge what they should do. Some may need some time to refer to their capitals and discuss it later. But no one can predict how long it would take.
Could it go on forever?
Well I don’t think it will go on forever, but I don’t think anyone can predict that it would be a matter for one week or six weeks or three months or whatever. I think we will have to see the actual text that is put foreword. Then I would expect that [members] would take it to their capitals and depending on the speed with which the capitals respond and the kind of queries or whatever they have will determine the ultimate decision. NSG works by consensus so it will have to be a decision supported by all members of the group.
When the NSG met informally and discussed the Indo-U.S. Nuclear deal, Iceland, New Zealand and some of the Nordic countries were not particularly happy about the Indo-U.S. deal. Do you recall why are they reacting in such a fashion?
No, we have just had a meeting of the plenary of the NSG in Berlin 2-3 weeks ago. There is dialogue at various levels but there is no decision and it has no formal status.
In Berlin, the Indian foreign office briefed the NSG on the nuclear deal. What transpired there?
No. No, there was no briefing from the Indian government to the NSG in Berlin.
Was it an informal briefing?
There was a meeting between the Troika [past, current and incumbent chairpersons] of the NSG and the [Indian] delegation, what is called an outreach meeting. This was headed by the Indian Ambassador in Berlin. All that was conveyed was that they were not yet ready with the [Safeguards] Agreement. When it is done, then the IAEA procedures will continue. That was all that was discussed.
What is the Troika’s feeling on whether India should get a clean, clear exemption? Is there a general feeling towards that or is the feeling that here is a country that wants to have its cake and eat it too, so keep it out?
The Troika has as such not discussed the matter. It is not a structure where we, the Troika, take a position as a Troika, certainly not before the Plenary has discussed the issue.
India has a good track record on non-proliferation. In that light, do you see the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal as being something good for the world?
Well, let me put it this way, the Indian controls have been existing before the nuclear deal and presumably they will continue irrespective of the nuclear deal so I don’t know whether the nuclear deal by itself would make any difference. Indeed, in 1997, the NSG had a transparency outreach meeting, [which I chaired] in Vienna and the Indian delegation made a presentation. The conclusion from the meeting was that controls in India were quite advanced and [we] commended them for it and indeed felt they were better than those existing elsewhere …
But in the larger context, as the Indian Prime Minister puts it, the deal is good for India, good for the world and good for non-proliferation. Is that a thought you also reflect as the immediate past chairman of the NSG?
Well I cannot do it in the context of the chair of the NSG since we are not party to any of that. Of course in the U.S. and elsewhere, people have suggested that if the agreement goes through then it would be a big asset in terms of non-proliferation. But the Indian regulations have existed before it made the agreement with the U.S. so I don’t see how an agreement with the U.S. all of a sudden changes the Indian control system. Unless what is meant is that that it would expose India to having more links with other countries in terms of nuclear trade. But then we have to go through those stages [of IAEA and NSG clearance] first. It will be sheer speculation for anyone to make judgments now about the outcome of that exercise.
(Pallava Bagla is Science Editor for NDTV and a correspondent for Science magazine.)