That the deal on civilian nuclear energy cooperation, signed on July 18 by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush in Washington, is too important to be lost through second thoughts and tertiary arguments, is the principal message from the high level Indo-US talks last week in New Delhi. India’s Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and the US Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns agreed that a historic breakthrough in Indo-US relations cannot be allowed to fall apart amidst the inevitable difficulties in implementing it. The nuclear talks last week also revealed the extraordinary technical and political complexity involved in implementing the mutual commitments under the July pact.
Moving forward on its side of the bargain, the Bush administration has begun substantive consultations with the US Congress at home and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) abroad to change the rules of atomic commerce in favour of India. Burns has underlined the importance of having a credible and transparent plan from New Delhi on separating its civilian and military nuclear facilities and placing the former under international safeguards — the Indian part of the deal. If India can come up with such a road map, the Bush administration is signalling, it would be easy to convince the US Congress and the NSG to go ahead with changing the rules.
While the exact sequence of how the two sides will move forward remains to be sorted out, two other external factors have begun to complicate the Indo-US nuclear dialogue — the resumption of US arms supplies to Pakistan and Iranian proliferation. Managing these developments, while sustaining the current warmth in Indo-US ties, has become a major challenge for India. One hopes the Bush administration will have the wisdom to scale down the size of its proposed arms sales to Islamabad, which makes no sense anyway in terms of Pakistan’s current national defence requirements. As the Iran controversy comes up before the IAEA once again next month, India would need to adopt an activist policy instead of just standing in a corner and wringing its hands. In trying to avoid another divisive vote at the IAEA on Iran, New Delhi must reach out to Tehran, the European Union, and Russia, to find a compromise that will allow Iran to come back in line with its legal commitments on non-proliferation.