Just how good is the 123 agreement India negotiated in Washington D C last week? That’s the key issued explored in the first of the two-part series on Devil’s Advocate this week with National Security Advisor, M K Narayanan.
Karan Thapar: Let me start with a simple question. How pleased are you with the work you did in Washington last week?
M K Narayanan: I think the team that went to Washington is fairly satisfied with what we have achieved and I think when we came back and reported to our leaders they seem pretty satisfied.
Karan Thapar: Is this merely a good deal or is it the best you could have got?
M K Narayanan: There’s always scope for improvement I suppose but it was much better than what we anticipated so I presume it is somewhere between the best and good.
Karan Thapar: In August last year, the Prime Minister said in Parliament, “We seek the removal of restrictions on all aspects of co-operation and technology transfer pertaining to civil nuclear energy.” Is he now in a position to go back to Parliament in August and say he succeeded?
M K Narayanan: I think he is in a position to go back to Parliament and say that what he had said about full civil nuclear co-operation, that commitment he has sustained as far as he is concerned.
What we have got is an agreement between India and US for civil nuclear co-operation that involves nuclear reactors and various aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle. We also got a commitment saying this is an agreement between states with advanced nuclear technologies with the same benefits and advantages.
In a comprehensive sense, I think it is an all-encompassing kind of a statement, which I think should make me sustain all that we wished to have. To that extent, the agreement fulfills all the commitments the Prime Minister has made.
Karan Thapar: So the agreement fulfills the Prime Minister’s commitment to secure full civil nuclear co-operation?
M K Narayanan: Yes, I think so.
Karan Thapar: Let’s go into some of the issues you mentioned one by one and let’s start by the right to reprocess. Has this been granted to India in a manner that India can accept?
M K Narayanan: The question you are asking me is whether we have the right to reprocess. I think we have the right to reprocess spent fuel.
Karan Thapar: We have the right to reprocess spent fuel? The newspaper report says the 123 agreement gives India prior consent although the specific arrangements will need to be worked out mutually between both sides within a finite time period of 18 months. If within that time the two sides can’t agree does prior consent mean India can go ahead and reprocess anyway?
M K Narayanan: No, it is not that there are any conditions to prior consent. It is upfront, advanced consent. What we have offered the Americans is the fuel that they would supply as also the fuel we would get from other countries; we are willing to put it in a dedicated national facility, so as to remove any concerns they might have about the fuel going anywhere other than what they wish to send.
Karan Thapar: And that was an important assurance?
M K Narayanan: That was an important assurance. I think it satisfied them. I don’t think we had any problem with it but it satisfied both parties.
Karan Thapar: On that basis, you have got prior consent?
M K Narayanan: Well, I presume that is one major factor.
Karan Thapar: And prior content is an important term.
M K Narayanan: Yes.
Karan Thapar: So there is no further negotiation needed.
M K Narayanan: No, as far as the consent is concerned is no more negotiations at all.
Karan Thapar: Connected to this is the issue of fallback safeguards. In the event that the IAEA is unable for whatever reason to safeguard Indian facilities, what fallback procedure is agreed upon?
M K Narayanan: You are now forcing me to go into the text. What I would like to mention is that we have taken that contingency into consideration and if and when such a situation were to arise, the general belief is that this would happen only when Armageddon takes place in which case what rights anybody has is a matter of speculation. But if such an eventuality were to occur then both the supplier and the recipient would get together and decide what procedures are necessary.
Karan Thapar: So this is left to be decided when an event occurs, it is not agreed upon now?
M K Narayanan: No. There is no problem. We have agreed that we will have only IAEA safeguards and no fallback safeguards.
Karan Thapar: So there is no question of any American or any other National inspectors trampling over our territory?
M K Narayanan: What we are trying to be as true to our commitment is that there will be safeguards in perpetuity. If for some reason it breaks down, we are willing to look at what other verification measures we should think of.
Karan Thapar: Another critical concern is India’s right to carry out further nuclear test if it deems that it is in its national interest to do. Is there anything directly or indirectly in the 123 agreement which would limit this right?
M K Narayanan: In this entire 123 negotiations that we have had with the US has been about civil nuclear co-operation. So our rights to test just did not come into the debate at all.
Karan Thapar: A newspaper report says that the 123 agreement specifically contains what’s called a non-hindrance clause which explicitly says that nothing in the 123 impinge or in any way hinder India’s strategic nuclear programme. Is that right?
M K Narayanan: I do not know where the newspaper got it this from. But I would not like to deny what it has said.
Karan Thapar: The newspaper report also said that the very word detonation, nor the phrase nuclear test appears anywhere in the text of the 123. Is that right?
M K Narayanan: Once again, I would not like to deny what the newspaper has said.
Karan Thapar: Lets then ask you a blunt question. One of the concerns people have is that the 123 agreement is designed to in fact cap or roll back India’s nuclear arsenal.
M K Narayanan: Whoever is saying this, either he is ignorant or he is jaundiced or prejudiced. I think there is nothing in the 123 agreement, as I said, which deals with the strategic programme. We decided this issue way back in March 2006. We have separated our military arsenal from it.
Karan Thapar: So the nuclear military arsenal remains sacrosanct.
M K Narayanan: Total and absolute.
Karan Thapar: Another issue of concern is India’s right to build up strategic reserves what are considered lifetime supplies of fuel for reactor. Is that assured by the 123?
M K Narayanan: How did the issue of strategic fuel reserve arise? When we agreed that we would put our nuclear reactors under safeguards, we wanted an assurance that there will be uninterrupted supply of fuel.
Karan Thapar: Has that been given?
M K Narayanan: It was a cut and paste thing that was put back. The entire provision of March 2006 statement is there in black and white, with the condition that there will be no derogation of these rights.
Karan Thapar: So specifically concerns that had arisen in India that the the Obama amendment would restrict or in some way undermine India’s right to build up strategic results—those concerns are allayed.
M K Narayanan: I think, both the Prime Minster and the External Affairs Minister have said that the Hyde Act or the other acts which the United States has cited — they will have to adhere to that part of it. We will adhere to what we have got in the 123 agreement.
Karan Thapar: And you have got lifetime supply assured.
M K Narayanan: I think, as far as we are concerned, on the text, we will not leave any room for doubts on this point.
Karan Thapar: Very specifically connected with this is in fact America’s right of return in the event, that the 123 agreement comes to be terminated. The real issue here is, have you been able to immunize India’s strategic reserves—the lifetime supplies of fuels for India’s reactors—from a right of return?
M K Narayanan: If you see the text, and look at it with no degree of prejudice, you would see that we have got a fairly comfortable position as far as immunization of India’s strategic reserves is concerned.
Karan Thapar: This is so important a question, let me repeat it Mr Narayanan. Are you saying yes you have immunised India’s strategic reserves?
M K Narayanan: As I said, had you asked me question two-weeks later, I might have been in a position to speak about it more explicitly because then I could have seen the text.
Karan Thapar: But you are comfortable.
M K Narayanan: I am very comfortable.
Karan Thapar: And you believe that in fact the Government is comfortable too.
M K Narayanan: I believe so.
Karan Thapar: It’s reported in the press that in fact what the Americans have agreed to is two or three things. One is that they have agreed to help India build strategic results, secondly they have committed themselves to the continuous operation of the Indian reactors, and thirdly and most importantly, they have agreed that they will only take back fuel which has been supplied to India by America, once India has had the chance to make alternate arrangements to replace it.
M K Narayanan: Obviously you have seen the text somewhere. But we have got multi-layered assurances.
Karan Thapar: And you don’t deny any of this…
M K Narayanan: I don’t deny any of this. But the point is, during the period of the discussions, I think the understanding on both sides was that what was agreed to in March 2006 and earlier in July 2005, should find expression both in letter and in spirit and by and large we have got that.
Karan Thapar: What does the 123 agreement say with regards to India’s right to acquire nuclear technology or components connected with enrichment, reprocessing and heavy water?
M K Narayanan: I think it has not been denied. But we will require an amendment, which we will work towards.
Karan Thapar: The important thing is its not been denied.
M K Narayanan: No its not been denied.
Karan Thapar: So you require a further amendment. But its not denied.
M K Narayanan: That’s correct.
Karan Thapar: Are you confident that this won’t become a president for the NSG countries and therefore an excuse for these countries to prevaricate in giving India access to these technologies and components?
M K Narayanan: I don’t think there is any NSG country that has the statute which prevents it. The United States is circumscribed by the fact that it has certain laws in this regard. Our entire negotiations proceeded on the basis that we would not ask the United States to either break or bend the laws beyond a point. But where it is a policy issue, we will push them.
Karan Thapar: But will the US use its laws or its practices to prevent NSG?
M K Narayanan: No. The whole idea was to have a civil nuclear cooperation agreement. The US has committed to help us with the NSG.
Karan Thapar: So the US is also committed to ensure that even if it cannot sell technologies and components, the NSG will be encouraged and not prevent it from selling.
M K Narayanan: Yes. US will not be a party to any post-conditions.
Karan Thapar: Now that India has a satisfactory 123 agreement, lets turn to the next step which is the need to begin with India-specific safeguards with the IAEA. How easy or difficult will that be?
M K Narayanan: I’m told by the present and former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who are doing discussions with the IAEA on our behalf, that this should not be too difficult.
Karan Thapar: Are we talking about matters of a week, month or could this cross a year?
M K Narayanan: I don’t know the answer, but from what I have understood from them, this should certainly not take a year. It may take weeks or may be a few months at the very best.
Karan Thapar: The next stage will be negotiations with the NSG countries to ensure that they gave India similar waivers as well. Now, countries like Austria, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, and possibly even Japan have reservations. Are you afraid that those could become stumbling blocks?
M K Narayanan: It could. But we are encouraged by the fact that a number of countries have offered to help us with the NSG.
Karan Thapar: But none of these particular ones that are named.
M K Narayanan: I’m talking of countries like Russia, France, US, UK. So we are hopeful that they will do most of the work. And of course there will be our efforts to lobby with these countries.
Karan Thapar: It’s sometimes suggested that these countries may insist upon specific conditions or at least they may attach a list of expectations that they have from India. If either were to happen, how would you handle that irksome situation?
M K Narayanan: We are very clear that there’ll be no post-conditions, as they are generally referred to, would be agreed to by us, unless it’s something that is minimal because I think what we are seeking a clean exemption from the NSG.
Karan Thapar: If a clean exemption from the NSG is what you want, how important is American help in securing it?
M K Narayanan: Very considerable.
Karan Thapar: And have you got an assurance from America that it will help?
M K Narayanan: I think we have an assurance from the US.
Karan Thapar: When you say you think, is there an element of doubt, or you’re simply being diplomatic?
M K Narayanan: I don’t want to speaking on behalf of the US. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t say so.
Karan Thapar: So you are comfortable that the Americans will step in and ensure that the NSG falls in line?
M K Narayanan: Let me make one thing clear. In the entire range of discussions that we had at different levels of the system, I found the US attitude to civil nuclear co-operation and whatever India needs outside the US was extremely positive. Therefore, while I can’t speak for the US, that’s why I use the word ‘I think’. I think they are inclined to go as far as they can in helping us.
Karan Thapar: After you have crossed the IAEA and the NSG hurdle, the 123 agreement has to go back to Congress for an up-down vote. How confident are you that an agreement that comprehensively meets India’s concerns, will be passed by a Congress that’s dominated by Democrats.
M K Narayanan: I think the Democrats have always been favourable to us.
Karan Thapar: Except that Democratic lawmaker Edward Markey and 22 others have written letters to President Bush suggesting that this is a capitulation, warning him that is if he has breached the Hyde Act or other American laws, he could jeopardise the 123 agreement. Are you worried by that?
M K Narayanan: No. As far as we are concerened, we haven’t breached the Hyde Act in that sense.
Karan Thapar: But if think Bush has breached the Hyde Act by making concessions to India, they may vote down your deal.
M K Narayanan: No. We have seen to that no law is broken. Now if somebody wishes to interpret it differently is a different matter. The sense I get from my five-day trip to Washington was that nobody wants to do something that would detract from a benefit to each other.
Karan Thapar: You go this as Democrats as well?
M K Narayanan: Well, across the board. I think by and large we did. The general feeling is that the US Congress would like an agreement that is beneficial to India to go through.
Karan Thapar: So you are confident that regardless of what’s appearing in the Press, regardless of letters that individual Congressmen write, this deal will find approval from the US Congress.
M K Narayanan: Rather than use the word confident, I would say rather hopeful.
Karan Thapar: You are not changing the terminology because of doubt, you are simply being discreet?
M K Narayanan: Yes.
Karan Thapar: In which case, how conscious are you of the fact that President Bush and his administration have for India something that perhaps no other government in the world, and perhaps no other government in America would have been prepared to do. They have changed their laws, and they are now going to change international laws for the benefit of one country alone.
M K Narayanan: I think it’s quite extraordinary. And I think it has much to do with a personal chemistry between President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It has been driven by the personal equations and relationship between the two countries because I feel that this has really been a top-down effort. And if finally the US Congress votes in favour of the 123 agreement, I think it will be an extraordinary achievement.
Karan Thapar: You are saying that actually at the end of the day, two men – George Bush and Manmohan Singh pulled it off because they hit it off with each other.
M K Narayanan: I would like to say that.
Karan Thapar: And they learn to trust each other, and to give each other the benefit of trust.
M K Narayanan: Also in the tremendous credibility that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh exuded in whatever he said.
Karan Thapar: Would you give any credit to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the fact that the process started with him?
M K Narayanan: Oh yes, most certainly. I think the process would never have taken off, but for Mr Vajpayee and the team. And in a meeting between the Prime Minister and Mr Vajpayee and other, he started off the discussion on this point.
Karan Thapar: Once the deal goes through the Congress has approved it, what impact will it have on the wider Indo-US relationship?
M K Narayanan: I think it would transform the Indo-US relationship to an entirely different plane. It then depends on what either side wants to make of the relationship.
Karan Thapar: But the opportunity for the transformation is there.
M K Narayanan: Not only an opportunity, I think the transformation would have take place.
Karan Thapar: The two countries like to call themselves strategic partners. Hereafter might they start considering themselves allies?
M K Narayanan: We have generally tried to avoid the word ‘allies’ because we have always tried to follow an independent path. But I think where their strategic interests converge, we would associate with each other.
Karan Thapar: And interest will converge increasingly after this?
M K Narayanan: May or may not. I presume they would.
Karan Thapar: How do you view the changing situation in Pakistan and how do you respond to increasing concerns that Indian Muslims are involved in terror in the West.
Watch the second part of the interview with M K Narayanan next Sunday, August 5 at 2030 hrs, IST only on CNN-IBN.