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Same facts, two fact-sheets

Siddharth Varadarajan

In choosing what to highlight in the nuclear deal and what to ignore, India and the United States underline different anxieties, expectations

New Delhi: On the surface, India and the United States choreographed the “outing” of their nuclear agreement perfectly.

The text was withheld and the contents of the deal were painted in the broadest of broad brushes at virtually simultaneous press conferences held in New Delhi and Washington D.C. on Friday. In both tone and spin, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns were remarkably consistent. Even if each was conscious of the nature of his domestic audience, neither gave answers to contentious issues like nuclear testing or fuel supply assurances that would discomfit the other.

And yet, the two press conferences — and separate ‘Fact Sheets’ on the deal put out by the Foreign Ministries — also provided an early indication of the different concerns and expectations that still animate both sides as they move towards the next steps in implementing the July 2005 nuclear deal. For, in choosing what “achievements” to highlight and which obligations to downplay, India and the United States are not just employing a different marketing strategy based on what their public might want to hear; they are underlining official anxieties that the textual compromise of last week has not fully succeeded in dispelling.

From 123 to 126

In terms of upfront expectations, while the Indian side was coy about the wider ramifications of the deal, Mr. Burns was emphatic about the U.S. belief that wider defence cooperation would be a major spin-off.

Asked what the Americans are getting out of the deal in terms of arms sales, Mr. Narayanan said on Friday that there had been no reference to arms deals in any of his negotiations. “I presume the outcome [of the nuclear deal] would be a transformed relationship, and this would lead to other things,” he added. Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon was equally categorical: “There are no conditions. This is an agreement in energy. We didn’t negotiate anything else.”

However, Mr. Burns was less coy at his press conference. “Now, I would anticipate a series of high-level meetings between the Indian and American leaderships over the next several months,” he confidently said in his prepared statement. “And I think now that we’ve consummated the civil nuclear trade between us, if we look down the road in the future, we’re going to see far greater defence cooperation between the United States and India: training; exercises; we hope, defence sales of American military technology to the Indian armed forces.”

Military cooperation

Later, in reply to a suggestion that India had a “burgeoning military relationship” with Iran, Mr. Burns said cuttingly, “Actually, the direction that India is turning into is to closer military cooperation with the United States. And as I said in my prepared statement, I think that is going to be one of the very significant horizons of this relationship.”

As for the contents of the 123 agreement, until the actual text is made public, the only written documents that are available to parse are the two separate fact-sheets issued on Friday by the Ministry of External Affairs and the U.S. State Department. While the fact-sheets are not contradictory, they do differ in small but important ways.

The Indian document highlights first of all the ‘status’ issue that the United Progressive Alliance Government used to sell the deal in July 2005 — that India is being treated as a quasi-nuclear weapons state. The agreement, it notes, is “between two States possessing advanced nuclear technology, both parties having the same benefits and advantages.” This is a phrase the U.S. side chose not to highlight in its fact-sheet.

On fuel supply assurances, the two fact-sheets acknowledge the incorporation of the March 2, 2006 supply assurances, including a strategic fuel reserve for India. However, only the Indian document mentions “the provision for corrective measures.” For the Indian side, this underscores the binding linkage between fuel supplies and permanent safeguards; in the context, “corrective measures” clearly include the termination of safeguards applicable on the Indian-built reactors that have been put in the civilian, safeguarded list.

In line with this, the Indian fact-sheet only notes that the 123 agreement “provides for the application of IAEA safeguards to transferred material and equipment.” The U.S. fact-sheet, on the other hand, emphasises that the 123 commits India to “safeguards in perpetuity.”

The fuel supply issue is most likely to arise in the event of an Indian nuclear test. Here, only the U.S. document notes that the 123 agreement “preserves the rights” of the U.S. to “terminate cooperation and request the return of transferred items under appropriate circumstances,” a provision the Indian side chose not to highlight in its handout.

On the scope of cooperation, India highlighted the inclusion of “cooperation in fuel cycle activities,” a reference the U.S. avoided. But it is in the U.S. and Indian descriptions of what the 123 agreement says about India’s right to reprocess U.S.-origin spent fuel that the differences are perhaps most consequential. India has highlighted the granting of “prior consent to reprocess nuclear material” and noted that to “bring this into effect” a national safeguarded reprocessing facility will be established and “the parties will agree on arrangements and procedures within one year.” The U.S. fact-sheet repeats this formulation without using the word “prior,” and also chooses not to highlight the fact that the 123 stipulates a concrete time frame for these arrangements to be worked out.

Next steps

The same subtle differences persist when it comes to describing the next steps. Both agree India has to go to the IAEA to negotiate a safeguards agreement but only the Indian fact-sheet uses the phrase “India-specific safeguards agreement.” The U.S. note adds “progress toward an Additional Protocol,” something Atomic Energy Chairman Anil Kakodkar said on Friday would only be taken up “later.”

As for the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Indian fact-sheet says the cartel’s guidelines must be changed to enable the NSG to trade with India “as an equal partner.” This phrase mirrors the Indian hope that the NSG exception will be “clean” and “unconditional” — a point reiterated by Mr. Menon on Friday — so that India would not be bound by obligations that do not apply to other countries. The U.S. fact-sheet, on the other hand, only says the NSG should “make an India-specific exception to the full-scope safeguards requirement” but does not speak of India being treated as an equal partner.

Finally, there is the diplomatic equivalent of a Freudian slip in the Indian fact-sheet. Neither in the enumeration of “next steps” or anywhere else is there a reference to the need for U.S. Congress to actually approve the 123 agreement. The American fact-sheet does not miss this detail.

The omission may be harmless but it underlines a simple fact that is surely not lost on the Indian side. The day the NSG amends its guidelines, India becomes open for nuclear commerce with the rest of the world. At that point, what happens in Washington should not really matter. If Congress shoots down the 123 agreement, the biggest losers would be American companies.

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