Journalist | Writer | Analyst
In his first on-the-record comments about the last week’s nuclear negotiations with the United States, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan told The Hindu how some very difficult circles were squared to produce the final text of the 123 agreement. In this, the first part of an exclusive interview, he discusses the technical aspects of the deal. The second part — on the broader strategic issues — will be published on Monday.
28 July 2007
“This is as good a text as one can possibly get”
Harish Khare and Siddharth Varadarajan
Would it be fair to say that you are 100 per cent satisfied with the text of the 123 agreement?
I am one of those who believes that if you are negotiating and you get everything you want, then obviously there is something wrong! But I think this is as good a text as one can possibly get. If this text gets implemented, I don’t think there’s anything for us to be worried about. You can always say you can get more, but you want both sides — after all they have to go back to Congress and get it passed in their up-down vote.
As you went into the talks, what was the basic Indian approach?
The PM had always taken the view that if you have a legal problem, we will not try to ask you to break the law but we should find the language that would meet the obligations of both sides. But as far as policy is concerned, we will push. This was roughly the strategy we followed, knowing full well that if we try to break the law, this would raise questions in Congress. Also, following [the G8 summit at] Heilingendamm, quite clearly the message had gone down that if the Indians are being reasonable, then we should also be reasonable.
Of course it helped that we decided we would stay there. We could have come away after a day and a half if we followed the standard pattern of meetings but we stayed a full five days! I had decided I would not leave till Friday night or Saturday morning. And finally, it was 4 p.m. on Friday evening when we tied it up. Second, the best idea we had was to take [Atomic Energy Commission chairman] Anil Kakodkar along with us so we could clear all doubts. This sent a tremendous message across to the other side that we mean business, that we’ve got the one person who understands what we need, and has the authority — in the sense of the nuclear community’s endorsement — and this means the Prime Minister was willing to send everybody whom he could possibly think of. He had sent his Foreign Secretary, Dr. Kakodkar, and the NSA plus the team.
How do you think the U.S. Congress will look at the text?
I don’t think Congress will object. If [the Democrats] do not wish the U.S. President to get a major foreign policy victory, they could probably do something. But I think the text is OK. Our point is that whatever we have on the table should primarily be something that meets our [concerns]; but if the other side is not able to get it through their system, then what is the point?
And they understood this was our constraint too?
We said we had reached the limit of our flexibility. But either side need not take the other’s view into consideration unless both were willing to reach an agreement.
Why was it necessary to split the Indian right to reprocess into two parts, with prior consent coming upfront but actual permission being granted only after an 18-month schedule of consultations?
[Experts] will understand but most people were fed on the concept that advanced consent rights is the basic issue. So we wanted that upfront, literally. Two, we wanted to make a very clear demarcation that if your concerns are nonproliferation, we are offering you something, and we wanted to make it very clear that this is a dedicated national facility. Ever since I first floated the idea publicly, there have been efforts on the part of some to say ‘Can it be part of an international program, part of GNEP?’ So we wanted it clear. That is why these two sentences are put in a manner that nobody can quibble about what we meant … And then we wanted some timelines so this wouldn’t be dragged on and on. So we got those three…
What happens if agreement on the modalities of reprocessing — like the infamous ‘joint determination’ for Tarapur reprocessing — does not come after a year of consultations? Is there a dispute resolution mechanism? Are there administrative arrangements? Will India be free to reprocess?
Running right through the agreement is a system of consultations and discussions. We really did not need [the timeline] except for Banquo’s Ghost of Tarapur hanging there. The question was, if you have an open-ended process, there will be no limit to this kind of thing. It becomes a chicken and egg situation — if the reactors come, the spent fuel starts piling up, and your reprocessing is still a matter of debate and discussion — so American industry must realise that to some extent, if they are thinking of expanding the opportunities they have, there must be an outlet for what is being produced. We have tried to put into the document as much as is possible to state. Now, it depends on people who are there. You will get spoilers I am quite sure, definitely on their side, probably on our side, who will try to do this. But we’ve tried to put into the agreement something that rational, normal human beings will understand what it means. If you don’t have agreement within a year, OK, it may be because some designs have not been properly [made], but if someone is quibbling that ‘I don’t like it to be facing west, it should face east,’ I mean, that would be different. I don’t think the whole thing will be decided in one year, it maybe extended if there is a rational way of looking at it — may be because the design you have drawn does not seem to be ok. But if you are just trying to prolong the process because you don’t want to give us reprocessing, we have the opportunity to terminate it in the ultimate, that is, it is not as if, at the end of 12 months, we are going to put a guillotine and say nothing is happening so therefore… The whole purpose is to move forward.
Terminate the consultation process or terminate the agreement?
We don’t know. We have no intention of terminating unless you see somebody is … I don’t think it’s going to happen. It’s really an insurance against what you rightly said is Tarapur. I think they have understood that we have not done anything with Tarapur. We did mention it is a ticking time bomb. Ok, Tarapur is a small quantity but if there are larger quantities, there is no question. If we are thinking of a huge expansion and you want to be part of that game, you need to do this. I think they’ve understood that and they have come forward. But you will always have some spoilers, for which we have put some kind of break so that people understand that if push comes to shove, and that’s the ultimate, we have no … For that is part of the agreement. The whole point of this is that we are not cheaters at all. Whatever we say or want to do will be in conformity with the terms of what has been put down. That is the sum and substance of the agreement.
The 123 text says that in the event of the International Atomic Energy Agency determining that safeguards are not being applied, India and the U.S. must enter into consultations for the establishment of alternative ve rification mechanisms. Have we thought about the circumstances under which the IAEA could make such a determination?
We were trying to bridge a concern that was being expressed, may be real, may be not. Running through this as a thread in the entire agreement is our willingness to stake our credibility in terms of our honesty of purpose. We have said we are prepared to put our reactors under safeguards in perpetuity and the only safeguards we accept are the IAEA safeguards. We are going in for an India-specific safeguards regime. Now the Americans say, ‘Suppose the IAEA doesn’t do this or that?’ We have already consulted the IAEA, they cannot even conceive of a situation, I mean short of a nuclear Armageddon when everything is broken down… But we are dealing with people who have concerns. After all, someone may ask us, why do you want a timeline on reprocessing. It’s purely based on our apprehensions. Similarly, they have apprehensions on the other side. So what we have said is ok, we meet your apprehensions, that if the IAEA determines they cannot, then we will have joint — the two parties will mutually agree on new verification arrangements, which I think is a very rational way of looking at it. We have removed the whole question of fallback safeguards. Now you may say, the IAEA could be persuaded, coerced…
What about budgetary reasons? The IAEA does have a budget crunch. Could lack of money be a reason for the IAEA to make such a determination on implementing Indian safeguards?
That’s true, but we have left it to IAEA determination. Whoever is the Director General will have to make the determination and get the [IAEA] Board to agree that we are unable to put the safeguards process. Now, if that is because of lack of funds, we may decide to add to the IAEA’s funds. There are several innovative things one can think of.
So in the worst-case scenario, we pay for our own safeguards rather than letting the U.S. come in?
Exactly. We don’t want someone else. If the IAEA is unable to do it because of lack of funds, we can always find some way to do it. What we do not want is x, y or z coming and prying.
How has the U.S. ‘right of return’ on fuel supplies in case of a nuclear test by India been reconciled with their commitment to fuel supply assurances and the continuous operation of our reactors?
When you see the full text, you will see. I think it’s a major achievement. In a sense we have squared a very difficult circle. The principle is that you cannot derogate a commitment that has been made because it is linked to safeguards in perpetuity. That is a point which I had made to [U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen J.] Hadley way back. ‘You and I played a role on the night of March 1  in producing this. Now you can’t go back on that. That approval came from your President.’ So I think there, the derogation of that [commitment] will not be affected by the [right of return]. That is more or less the line we have taken. This was a problem we have because that is a legal issue for them, not a policy issue. We have tried our maximum to enable them to say that we have not broken any law or bent any law beyond any point, so that they cannot come back and tell us that. So where there was a legal impediment, we have tried to find some way around it, but this I think is an excellent fix, the negotiating team felt. It certainly has the approval of [DAE Director of Strategic Plans] Dr. Grover and Dr. Kakodkar. That’s why I had him there. He had said, ‘You can always ring me up.’ I said I want you there every second, every minute!
But he was not present in the actual negotiations?
No. I told him, if things break down, they will accuse me… ‘What do you expect of a policeman, he can’t think strategically’! But you are an icon as far as India is concerned. If there is breakdown, let them at least say you were not involved in the negotiations. But I’ll pass every single bit of it through you so if you have any, I mean, we had lots of discussions and we had to moderate each other’s positions, but finally he was fully on board. Just as we did on July 17  night.
Were you constantly in touch with the PM?
Not constantly, but I knew he was worried. So I talked to him, first on July 18, then 19 and 20, when we felt things were not collapsing, we are moving towards resolution.
In the negotiations last week, was there a point where you realised you were over the hump?
July 18th. That was the Hadley meeting. There were the two basic issues of reprocessing and right of return which were finalised. And it was obvious I had an ally. And safeguards. For us the three key issues were reprocessing, immunising of strategic reserves, and safeguards. All commitments the PM had made. And there were others like sequencing and so on.
On the 18th, we had the impression that these three would be sorted out. I had two rounds with Hadley entirely one to one. And a two-hour round with myself, Burns, and Hadley. We had altogether eight hours involving Hadley. I think our negotiating group had a tougher time. There were the State Department lawyers and all that. I take my hat off to our negotiators. What I did was easy. The difficult part was what [Indian High Commissioner to Singapore] S. Jaishankar, Dr. Venkatesh Verma [from the Prime Minister’s Office], and Grover did with Burns. Because there were lawyers. With Hadley it was easy; you basically make a pitch and if he was willing or half way willing, it was ok.
Did we have lawyers?
No, our country is not litigious like that. We don’t have prenuptial agreements before one gets married here! But our team was solid. I must say you have to really give credit to the two stalwarts from the DAE — Dr. Kakodar, who stayed away but his presence permeated right through, and Dr. Grover; they fought every inch of the way. Because whatever were the big ticket items we got, putting the concepts into language was always difficult.
Is it the case that in the unforeseen event of a nuclear detonation by India, the continuous running of Indian reactors will be unaffected?
On paper, they have said it will be uninterrupted. What we have tried to say is for disruption — so this will be treated as disruption. Now certainly I don’t have to tell you that if there is a detonation, or what I would say a unilateral detonation — we have provided in this for a mutuality in that — when you read the full text you will see that when we refer to July 18, there is a provision that if the U.S. tests, i.e. there is a reciprocal commitment. Then we have provided for multilayered consultations, in which the national security concerns if something happens is — I mean the dreaded word detonation has not been said anywhere.
But if there is a unilateral detonation on our side, I presume there will be political consequences irrespective also. We recognise that. But what we want is a legal document so that we have a leg to stand on.
We’ve talked in terms of a time lag by which alternative supplies can be brought, all that has been provided, so that’s why I am saying the text is good, but the text is as good as its implementability. I think the U.S. and India will hopefully not — at least for the next 20 or 30 years — be seen as antagonists who are fighting a major conflict, so I think both sides will be interested in [agreeing].
Just so that we are clear on this point, India can continue to use American supplies until such time as replacements come, even if they want it back?
That is the sum and substance of what the text says. Whether that happens, I am not God here, though I must say God played his role in this.