07 September 2008

Dateline Vienna: NSG lifts sanctions on India

Country now free to buy nuclear material from Russia, France and others...

NSG lifts sanctions on India

Siddharth Varadarajan

Vienna: In an act replete with historic and political significance, the Nuclear Suppliers Group on Saturday lifted its 16-year-old embargo on nuclear commerce with India. Adopted by consensus after three days of roller-coaster negotiations, the NSG decision waives the requirement of “full-scope safeguards” as a condition for the cartel’s 45 member states to export nuclear material and fuel for use in safeguarded Indian facilities.

In effect, the move will allow India to resume civil nuclear cooperation with the world despite possessing nuclear weapons, something the NSG guidelines have barred since 1992. Even though one further American domestic hurdle must be crossed before the country will be able to import nuclear items from the United States, Saturday’s decision by the NSG means India will now be able to enter into agreements with other major suppliers such as Russia and France with immediate effect.

As for the fate of the ‘123 agreement’ allowing U.S. companies to sell India nuclear material, Indian officials said what happened on Capitol Hill was now of secondary importance given the State Department’s attempt to reinterpret and undermine the basis of that text.

The NSG waiver incorporates a reference to the statement issued by External Affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee on Friday reiterating India’s non-proliferation commitments, including its “voluntary, unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing”. According to diplomatic sources, the text describes these commitments as the “basis” for the NSG’s decision to exempt India from the requirement of full-scope safeguards, but does not provide for the automatic termination of nuclear supplies by all members in the event of India violating its commitments.

Describing the waiver as one which would allow India to engage in “full civil nuclear cooperation” with NSG members, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, who headed the high-powered Indian delegation to Vienna, said this cooperation would be on the basis of the same reciprocal commitments and obligations India embodied in the July 2005 agreement with the U.S. He declined to provide details of the changes that had been made in the waiver text, citing the NSG’s rules of confidentiality. The text is likely to be made public in a few days when it is issued as an information circular by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

When the NSG convened for its second plenary in as many weeks on September 4, several countries objected to the draft proposal that had been circulated by the U.S. Though the draft had been revised to address the nonproliferation concerns raised by them at the August 21-22 meeting of the group, Ireland, Austria and New Zealand demanded substantial changes and vowed to block the decision unless these were incorporated. What followed were two days of endless consultations. As drafting language flew back and forth within NSG steering committees and between the U.S. and India, a final revised text was “frozen” shortly before 11:30 pm on Friday. But these three states, as well as China, said they would not approve the text without instructions from their respective capitals. Renewed attempts were made to convince the holdouts before the plenary reconvened shortly before 2 a.m. on Saturday for the tabling of the text.

Overnight political intervention by India and the U.S. proved decisive. The NSG meeting resumed on Saturday morning and at 11:56 local time, the first SMSes announcing the waiver had been adopted landed on the cell phones of Indian officials waiting nervously at the their hotel several miles away.

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