India's vote against Iran at the last IAEA meeting has pleased the US, but has surprised much of the international community, including Iran, the members of NAM (Non-Aligned Movement), as well as Russia and China.
From the lack of any cogent explanation from New Delhi on this sudden volte face, and in view of the known pressure from the US Congress and its administration for India to side with the US on this issue, it would appear that India's new stance is not based on any exalted principles or strategy other than pleasing the Americans.
Despite that, the Indian government is still leaning towards voting against Iran in the forthcoming November meeting of the IAEA Board, because of its anxiety to clinch the Indo-US nuclear co-operation deal.
To say the least, the Indian decision exhibits a serious paucity of strategic thinking and diplomatic skill within the Prime Minister's Office and the ministry of external affairs. Only shallow thinking will lead us to conclude that just by helping the US to bring in Iran to the UN Security Council, India will be rewarded with the final clearance of the nuclear deal.
Or, are we to infer that the prime minister and his advisors are already aware of a series of issues on which we have tacitly agreed, over the last six months of meetings in Washington and Delhi, to modify our decades-old policy stands, and the Indian public is now gradually being let into this secret, one issue at a time? Help in taming Iran today, perhaps the question of India having to actively join the Proliferation Security Initiative tomorrow? Or is it the request to cancel India's oil and gas deals with Sudan or Venezuela?
The Indo-US nuclear deal has not even crossed the first of several hurdles it has to overcome in the US set-up, leave alone the series of stumbling blocks yet to surface from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, NSG, discussions. The NSG objections cannot all be over-ridden by just our being chummy with the Americans, because some of the NSG members who have serious objections to the India deal are not under US influence.
In the first round at the US Congress, members made several disparaging remarks about India and especially about our foreign minister. It is a shame that neither the prime minister nor the external affairs ministry formally expressed their strong objection to these statements nor defended our own minister, for fear of annoying the US.
The other minister seemingly under gag orders from the PMO is Mani Shankar Aiyar, who is doing laudable service in strengthening our diplomatic and commercial relations with a host of countries who could be long-term suppliers of hydrocarbon energy resources to India, because he does not come through as US-friendly.
Tens of questions are being lined up by US Congressional aides, members of the US Senate, the US non-proliferation lobbies, and the Non-proliferation Bureau of the US State Department, all of which will soon require detailed answers from the Indian government.
At each of these junctures, the next incremental forward movement on the Indo-US nuclear deal will be held ransom for payment through a policy deviation or two to be agreed by India. According to Michael Krepon, Director, Stimson Center, Washington DC, 'India's vote (against Iran) does not mean smooth sailing for the nuclear co-operation deal, as there will be other tests ahead.'
Our Department of Atomic Energy, DAE, believes India will have the luxury of signing an IAEA safeguards agreement similar to what the nuclear-weapon States like the US have entered into. What the US seems to have in mind may be a somewhat 'similar' agreement, but very different in many of its finer details from the one it had signed.
In separating the nuclear facilities into civilian and military ones, India is preparing to start by volunteering a very small set of facilities in the Indian civilian list and adding on to it gradually over a period of years. The US, on the other hand, expects much larger numbers to be provided in the initial list.
Our claim that the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, BARC, Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, IGCAR, the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor, PFBR, the Centre for Advanced Technology, CAT at Indore, etc will not be in the civilian list leaves mainly just the power reactors in this list -- even here, we desire to keep a few of these reactors in the military basket for 'dual-use' purposes.
This kind of a separation will not be agreed to by the US, though the DAE may have very valid reasons for putting forward only this limited list in the national interest. Similarly, the Indian hope that once a facility has been included initially in the civilian list, we will be able to withdraw it from there and place it in the military list at a later date, to avoid further inspections from then on, is just wishful thinking.
On the civilian list, the US will be insisting on perpetual safeguards and will not agree to provide the facility withdrawal flexibility given only to the NPT weapon States.
Those holding official positions in India and are publicly clamouring for import of foreign power reactors now seem to enjoy the support of the PMO, but all of them together will soon realise that India can never get guaranteed long-term access to enriched fuel, to avert situations similar to that we are facing in Tarapur today, without continually being subservient to US foreign policy diktats for the life-time of those reactors.
Though our American friends consider the current Iranian President Ahmedinejad to be a radical, his following words at the recent UN General Assembly meeting are worth pondering over. He said, 'What needs our particular attention is the fact that peaceful use of nuclear energy without possession of nuclear fuel cycle is an empty proposition. Nuclear power plants can indeed lead to total dependence of countries and peoples if they need to rely for their fuel on coercive powers, who do not refrain from any measure in furtherance of their interests. No popularly elected and responsible government can consider such a situation in the interest of its people.'
Words of wisdom from a besieged nation, which our prime minister's advisors, the Planning Commission, and the DAE need to seriously mull over.
Even on retaining the weapon-grade plutonium-producing reactor CIRUS in the list of military facilities, US objection has surfaced through a devious argument. Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute and an advisor to the US State Department has said last week, 'India needs to consider its own apparent violations of international nuclear norms, specifically, its use of the Canadian-supplied CIRUS reactor for its nuclear weapons program, contrary to the terms of the Indian-Canadian agreement under which it was supplied. To clarify that India is in compliance with this agreement, it should declare the facility (CIRUS) and place it under IAEA inspection, in keeping with the terms of the new US-India understanding.' Something India cannot simply agree to.
In short, ditching Iran in November will not buy India enough brownie points with the US to bag the Indo-US deal in our favour. It will just be the beginning of a long road with many toll posts, at each of which an American arm will be extended to extract one more concession.
India must stand firm on the continuation of its core policies, which are the products of decades of strategic efforts in the national interest put in by previous governments. But, instead, we are disturbed to see the signs of a government which is beginning to vacillate in its resolve to face up to the US, in our excessive obsession with 'great power' status and the economic benefits that may accrue from cultivating a closeness with the US.
Dr A Gopalakrishnan is a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, Government of India