Journalist | Writer | Analyst
20 August 2008
For nuclear club, it’s decision time on India
Proposal to bend rules brings angst, and the opportunity of business for some
Vienna: For a club with such strict rules of membership and forbidding guidelines of behaviour, the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s lack of a permanent address has always given the cartel something of a spectral character.
Set up under conditions of the greatest secrecy in London in April 1975 in order to deal with the consequences of India’s ’peaceful’ nuclear explosion at Pokhran in 1974, the seven founding members decided not to advertise the birth of their club. Three of them — France, West Germany and Japan — were not even members of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, though Bonn and Tokyo would deposit their instruments of ratification soon thereafter. One of them, the erstwhile Soviet Union, did not want developing countries to think it was ganging up with the West against them. The United States, Britain and Canada also preferred to be circumspect. Conscious of the fact that the rest of the world — including their closest allies — would see the cartel in a negative light, the seven decided that no minutes would be kept of their historic first meeting.
Predictably, when word of the secret meeting leaked out in the New York Times six weeks later, many European chanceries were enraged. The Netherlands, which saw itself as a pioneer of enrichment technology (as did an obscure Pakistani scientist named A.Q. Khan) petitioned for membership since it would be affected by the club’s decisions to restrict sensitive technologies. In 1976, it was admitted along with seven other countries from west and east Europe. According to an account by a former Swiss nuclear official, Alec Baer, Switzerland’s Claude Zangger — who headed a multilateral export control committee named after himself —“complained bitterly [but diplomatically] about not having been invited to the NSG discussions.” So the next year, Berne was also made a member of the club. After this initial burst of activity, however, the ‘London Club’ went into hibernation for 15 years and did not meet again in plenary until 1992.
Throughout this period, the group’s export rules did not prohibit nuclear sales to India despite the country refusing to place all its nuclear facilities under international safeguards. However, meeting in Warsaw that year after the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War, the NSG adopted ‘full scope safeguards’ as a condition of supply for nuclear sales to any country. And that is when New Delhi found the door for nuclear imports — reactors, components and fuel — slammed in its face. Eighteen years after Pokhran-I, India had become off limits for nuclear commerce.
The fact that the NSG will take up for discussion on August 21 an American proposal to open that door once again is noteworthy enough. But were its two-day deliberations to conclude with a decision on lifting the embargo, this would represent one of the most dramatic policy reversals the world would have seen in recent years.
Batting for the exemption are the United States, Russia, France and Britain and a host of other countries with significant nuclear or nuclear-related interests. In announcements presumably timed to add wind to the sails of India’s supporters at the NSG, Indian nuclear officials are speaking of adding an additional 40 GWe of capacity through reactor imports. France, the U.S., Japan and Russia all expect to get a chunk of this business. But by far the most dramatic turnaround has been that of Canada. Ottawa joined the ‘London Club’ in 1975 mainly because it felt India had violated its ‘peaceful use’ commitments by allegedly employing Canadian-origin equipment for its 1974 explosion. After months of fence-sitting, the conservative government of Stephen Harper adopted a Cabinet decision late last month clearing the way for Canada to back the nuclear deal. Other countries that are expected to provide quiet backing for the exemption are Australia, Japan and Germany, though the last two continue to have reservations about certain aspects of the proposed waiver.
But if support is building up among the larger players, there are signs that several countries are preparing for a vigorous discussion here on Thursday.
New Zealand is the only one to have publicly articulated its concerns and Prime Minister Helen Clark said on Tuesday that Wellington was pursuing the matter diplomatically with “like-minded countries.”
“It would be no secret that we would like to see more conditionalities around the agreement,” she was quoted as saying by Fairfax Media.
Having held fast to the belief that India must be encouraged and cajoled into giving up its nuclear weapons, countries like New Zealand and Ireland who form part of the ‘New Agenda Coalition’ are reluctant to abandon the NSG’s trade embargo on New Delhi.
A question mark also surrounds the U.S. strategy on the eve of the NSG meeting. During the difficult negotiation process with Washington over the wording of the draft exemption, U.S. officials told their Indian counterparts that pushing the text through the cartel without changes would be difficult.
Some indication of what might be in store was provided by Richard Stratford, the State Department’s point-person for the technical talks with India in a recent pubic event in Washington.
“I heard Dick Stratford speak a couple of weeks ago, and during the Q&A session we hammered him pretty hard about the India deal and negotiations with the NSG,” a comment posted on the respected armcontrolwonk.com blog states. “From what he said, it seems pretty clear that the U.S. is going in with a “clean” exemption so they have a position to negotiate from with the other members. If they went in with a proposal that contained the limits of what India would accept, then there’d be no room for compromise. He has no expectations that the ‘clean’ draft will be the final version.”