The Indo-US nuclear deal will “regularise” India’s relationship with the world and help in its development but there is no deadline to achieve it, says Mohammed ElBaradei, chief of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In an interview to CNN-IBN, ElBaradei said the deal will help end the nuclear non-proliferation regime of nuclear “have and have-nots”.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar:Do you believe that India will succeed in getting the Indo-US nuclear deal through by the end of this year?
Mohammed ElBaradei: What I believe that India eventually will have to rid itself from the restrictions imposed on it to be a fully-fledged member of the international community and to exchange freely nuclear technology both as recipient and as a supplier and to be at the forefront in effort to rid our world from nuclear weapons. Whether that will happen this month, next month through 123 Agreement, this is for the Government to decide.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: But do you think that this is going to be inevitable within the Bush presidency?
Mohammed ElBaradei: I think every American administration will understand it. In fact most of the world nations now understand that Indian need nuclear energy for development.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: But this will not happen during the Bush presidency?
Mohammed ElBaradei: Well, I hope it would but again that depends on the dialogue here in India on that issue. I think it would be good, obviously both from Indian government prospective and the US government perspective to come and finalize and operationalise the deal as early as possible. But there is no deadline.
What I see there is a bipartisan support in Congress for the US-India deal. So even there is change of administration I will be surprised if there is lack of support for that deal because as I said it makes a lot of common sense. It will help India to lift millions of people out of poverty. It will bring India to its right place at the negotiating table for nuclear arms control.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: You’ve been at the forefront of IAEA for many years now and your work has also been recognised by the Nobel Committee. You’ve also won the Nobel Peace prize with the IAEA. My question is how important is it for India to become a part of the global nuclear commerce for world peace?
Mohammed ElBaradei: I think it’s vitally important, both with regard of peaceful use of nuclear energy and now that there are renewed efforts to abolish nuclear weapons
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: Why? India hasn’t never really played a global role and it’s America that has led it.
Mohammed ElBaradei: India has always been a leader since Prime Minister Nehru’s call for a world free of nuclear weapons.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: But yet the world hasn’t moved towards it. It’s only gone towards the permanent extension of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty–which you believe wouldn’t really work.
Mohammed ElBaradei: That’s correct. But if you look few months ago, Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Sam Nunn, Bill Perry—four people with immense experience in Cold War and defence strategy—came with a piece saying we need to abolish nuclear weapons. They have become increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective. I cannot exclude India as a nuclear weapons state—it has one-sixth of world’s population—from that debate and dialogue.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: But all these people you mention have been important to US government in past. Today it’s the conservatives, the neo-cons as they call it, who are ruling the roost in America. The transition doesn’t seem to be hopeful either.
Mohammed ElBaradei: Usually the message comes clearly. I see Mr Barak Obama (US Senator and Presidential candidate) talking about rolling back nuclear weapons. I see other leaders talking about it—so this is new phenomena.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: But you don’t hear Hillary Clinton talk about it…
Mohammed ElBaradei: I hope she will. I hope everybody will because as I said the regime we have now is not sustainable but that’s one aspect of it…
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: By regime, you are talking of non-proliferation?
Mohammed ElBaradei: Yes, non-proliferation arms control. Right now, we have a regime where we tell every country, ‘you cannot have nuclear weapons’ but the Big Five nuclear weapons. We cannot have a regime of haves and have-nots.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: This is the classic argument India has been making over the years against the NPT. You are agreeing with that position?
Mohammed ElBaradei: India has decided that NPT does not fit its security concern and so India has not joined it. I think India’s solution has to come within the global Nuclear Arms Control Association. That’s what I am very supportive of India regularising its relationship with international community and not just the non-proliferation regime in general. So it will be at the front seat when this negotiation starts. But more importantly also, India is a large developing country. It needs all the energy it can get. It needs nuclear energy as a clean source of energy.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: No doubt. The nuclear mix is important.
Mohammed ElBaradei: It is.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: However, looking at it, the route seems to be through Indo-US nuclear deal and the problem here seems to be the political dilemma that the Government faces in convincing the Left that entering into a safeguards agreement with your organisation is not really operationalising the deal. Do you agree that talks with IAEA will amount to actually putting the deal into operation?
Mohammed ElBaradei: I don’t think it’s operationalising the deal, and here I speak as a lawyer. Talking to IAEA is just a start. To operationalise the deal means you have to talk to us and it has to be agreed upon by our Board of Governors, you have to sign the agreement and ratify it. There are at least four stages before you can say that you are going to operationalise the deal.
Once you have the safeguards agreement you also have to get an exemption from the Group of Suppliers (45 countries). That’s one of the points I wanted to mention that when people talk about Indo-US deal, this is the way to lifting the restrictions by the 45 countries and India trading freely in the nuclear market.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: Let’s talk about the safeguards agreement now. You’ve said it’s a non-issue, you have said there are many agreements that India already has in existence with your organisation. You’ve mentioned at least four agreements for the four reactors that India has. However, it is vital, isn’t it, for India to be talking to the officials at IAEA at least at an informal level? After all the safeguards need to be tailored according to India-specific requirements, isn’t it?
Mohammed ElBaradei: Yes.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: So are these informal talks going on with the members of your organisation?
Mohammed ElBaradei: We have been talking to Indian officials for over a year since the deal came into place. But informal discussions have been going on all issues, not just that. We have a lot of relations between India and the agency. You’ll have to wait for the negotiations to start on the safeguards agreements when Indians come with a formal request. I am waiting for that and will be happy if India decides to do that.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: When you say a formal request, you are talking about actually introducing an agreed text into the IAEA Board of Governors meeting that can be signed an cleared, is it?
Mohammed ElBaradei: Correct. Actually starting a formal negotiating process with India.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: However, in other words, the informal talks are heading towards preparing a text that should be agreed upon?
Mohammed ElBaradei: I don’t think we are at that stage yet. I think we are talking about what we would need if we have to start the safeguards negotiations.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: You’ve also said that the timeline doesn’t really matter and that this agreement can be done at any time with IAEA. Can you just clarify this a little bit? There have been talks of how the IAEA meeting will require at least a five-week notice period, if not 45 days, for even it to consider within a 72-hour notice period clearing of a safeguards agreement. What’s the factual position on this?
Mohammed ElBaradei: The Board can meet on one day’s notice.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: But it will have to have a text ready?
Mohammed ElBaradei: Of course, it will have to have a text ready. And we’ll have to give Board the time to study that text. But the Board meets regularly. The next meeting is in November. There’s no reason that if there’s an agreement the Board will not meet specifically for it.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: Is that meeting on November 22?
Mohammed ElBaradei: Yes. And I think that’s why people start talking about the deadline. If we don’t make the November board, we can always have another meeting as a regular board. Once there’s an agreement within India and between India and the Secretariat to go ahead with the safeguards agreements, the rest of it is procedure and we can overcome that easily.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: In other words, there isn’t any deadline that’s stemming out of getting a safeguards agreement cleared at the IAEA. But there might be pressure on the Government to push it as early as possible so that US, which is committed to the deal, to get this through at the supplier’s meeting while President Bush is still the President and Congress has time to consider the deal. Is that right?
Mohammed ElBaradei: I think it would be good from both Indian and USA’s perspective to come, finalise and operationalise the deal as early as possible. But there’s no deadline. What I see there is a bipartisan support in Congress for the US-India deal. So even there is change of administration I will be surprised if there is lack of support for that deal because as I said it makes a lot of commonsense. It will help India to lift millions of people out of poverty. It will bring India to its right place at the negotiating table for nuclear arms control.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: It’s interesting you should use the word common sense because the Prime Minister used the exact phrase while defending the nuclear deal. He suggested that reason and commonsense say we should go ahead with the deal. But more importantly, what you are saying is that Government of India can afford to wait for the next US administration to take this forward.
Mohammed ElBaradei: Clearly. There’s no absolute deadline to take it or leave it. But the earlier India is able to lift the restriction on its ability to trade freely and to get state-of-the-art technology, the earlier India becomes a full fledged member of non-proliferation regime in general, the better for the international community. So from my personal perspective, aside from the Indo-US deal, the earlier it happens, the better it is. As I have said that once the agreement is signed, it’s a win-win situation both for India and for the international community.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: You’ve met the Foreign Minister and importantly, the Prime Minister of India. Did you suggest them that you believe that even if India misses out on this Bush Presidency, the next American president is likely to back the Indo-US deal in any way?
Mohammed ElBaradei: It’s not for me to tell them what they already know.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: But did you suggest? Or did they ask you?
Mohammed ElBaradei: I told them my conviction even before 2007 when I said that India should be a partner and not an outsider on all nuclear issues. So I even expressed my views during the negotiation between India and US. I said I subscribe fully to Government’s view of being a full partner in the Nuclear Arms Control Association. We will be ready and happy to negotiate whenever India is ready.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: Two other issues: We are talking about corrective measures that India has agreed with the US that it can take if there’s an interruption in the supply of nuclear fuel to us once the deal comes into effect. Is that a problem for the IAEA to actually work into a safeguards agreement?
Mohammed ElBaradei: We’ll have to look into the details of whether it has to be in the safeguards agreement or bilateral agreements. As I read the 1-2-3 Agreement, there’s a lot of assurance of ‘supply built-in’ mechanism including India building a buffers stock of fuel. So there are possibilities of India building a buffer stock of fuel. Whether we can refer to it in the safeguards agreement is a question.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: But is this unprecedented in the agreements that IAEA has on safeguards?
Mohammed ElBaradei: We usually have a safeguards agreement, we have supply-and-projects agreement, we have a tripartite agreement between the supplier, the IAEA and the recipient. So that could be another way to ensure India of an uninterrupted supply.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: But critics have said that the best corrective measure India can take is to simply tell the IAEA that ‘your safeguards aren’t applicable anymore because our fuel supply has been interrupted.’ Would that be the right way to go forward?
Mohammed ElBaradei: I don’t think so. The right way to go forward is by building trust. The issue is not to start on the basis of distrust. The issue is to start trusting each other and build mechanism to have trust over time. That’s my personal feeling. Once the deal gets done, I don’t think any of these issues will be raised.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: We know that nuclear energy is important in a mix of energies India must pursue. But considering India’s history in this business, the contribution of nuclear energy is just 2.6-2.7 per cent. Do you believe if this deal is through, that can really leapfrog forward, given India’s experience?
Mohammed ElBaradei: I think it needs to leapfrog if I compare with developed countries. I won’t compare it with countries where 70 to 60 per cent of energy requirement is provided for by nuclear energy. I can’t see why India with a nine per cent growth rate will do without nuclear energy being a significant part of it.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: So can India pursue other, renewable sources of energy?
Mohammed ElBaradei: India will need to pursue all alernative sources of energy. India needs to rely on coal, oil, gas and on nuclear.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: You play the role of a diplomat who draws the line between Iran’s interests and the way US defines global interests. You know where and exactly how much pressure US can put on the world if it wants to push something. The fear in India is that once we go ahead with this deal, somehow India will lose its independence and spine in its foreign policy and will have to tow the American line.
Mohammed ElBaradei: I can’t speak for Indian Government. However, as I said that if this deal were to go through, there are 45 countries who will lift their restrictions about dealing freely with India. I can’t say if one country can exert pressure against another country, like India, at an international level. That remains a question mark. My stress is to start with a dialogue on building trust rather than doubt. India cannot be pushed around and was not pushed around.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: There’s a talk about how you ensured that America doesn’t get its way around Iran. How true is that?
Mohammed ElBaradei: That’s not true at all. My job is to make sure that the Iranian nuclear programme is clean, peaceful and under full agency control. We have been trying to do that for the last four years.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: So is this a witch hunt by Americans?
Mohammed ElBaradei: There are different perceptions. I know my agenda is my (IAEA) charter—it’s my Bible. My job is to ensure two things: a)that the Iranian programme is used for peaceful purposes and b) I will do everything possible to resolve the differences about the Iranian programme through peaceful means. The enrichment taking place in Iran is under agency safeguards. The question is whether there’s any other enrichment taking place. So that’s where we are unable to say if their programme is completely safe. We are in Iran this week, working on this programme and hopefully, in a couple of months we’d be in a much better position.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: In your vast experience as being the Director General of the IAEA, what was your toughest moment?
Mohammed ElBaradei: It was when Iraq was attacked. I know at that time Iraq did not revive its nuclear weapons programme and I told my colleague Hans Blix there was no indication that there was any WMD. Right now when I see the number of causalities in Iraq, I feel sad and want to ensure that this won’t be repeated. That we will not go for use of force on basis of suspicion rather than actual facts. Use of force does not resolve issues, it just complicates them.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: Would you blame the US?
Mohammed ElBaradei: I won’t blame them. It was a wrong judgment taken on the basis of presumptions. I wouldn’t say I am vindicated. I am relieved in a way that Iraq did not have nuclear weapons. It added to our credibility.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: What about North Korea, are you happy that the deal there has got through.
Mohammed ElBaradei: I am happy. It shows that if you have dialogue, it shows results.
Vidya Shankar Aiyar: After a lovely innings in the diplomatic service of Egypt and having earned the Nobel Peace Prize as head of IAEA, what’s next when you finally hang up boots?
Mohammed ElBaradei: My kids would like me to spend some more time with them. But I would like to continue speaking on security issues that concern our survival. I would like to be in touch with young people, to lecture at universities with young people as they are the future. I’d like to spend some time with my family who’d to see more of me in Vienna or wherever we are.