Blinkered Vision(?) : Unravelling the Nuclear Debate.

The Nuotclear debate has entered the public imagination, if not careful scrutiny, thanks to the stubborn refusal of the left parties to toe the UPA line. PM Man Mohan Singh has the necessary credibility with the urban middle class to be heard and believed when he says we should not miss the nuclear bus. Mainstream English media has been eager in beating the drums of 123 agreement with liberal doses of how India stands to gain across the board by closer ties with USA. An editorial in Indian express averred, ‘We must not loose sight of the broader picture. America is now the only super power. It is in our self interest to align with them. The greatest democracy on earth and the largest would have natural congruity of interests. If we don’t, ……………‘. It’s a moot point that this greatest democracy on earth did not heed the UN Charter (Article 2 [2] that says ‘All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.’), which it helped to formulate. Nor did it seek the fig leaf of UN approval that collectivism of UN democracy demands before it unilaterally invaded Iraq in 2003. US has now adopted ‘preemptive strike‘ as a guiding principle of its ‘War on Terror‘, where it is free to decide who is the source of this terror and when its threat is imminent in complete disregard to facts and what the others in the world have to say. The greatest power on earth can now have designer wars on demand at the turn of a tap. One has to be alert to this reality while weighing any arguments.

Many in India, and the US government, are saying that 123 agreement is great for India, great for its energy needs, great for its prosperity, great for its regional power aspirations, in short great for its future. If it is so, then it should have been India that would have been seen to pressurize reluctant US to operationalize the agreement by taking further steps. Not the other way round. That would be common sense. Thus the issue of ultimatums by US to India to move ahead with an obscene haste provides another pretext to the nuclear debate.

1 9 5 4 to 1 2 3

When in doubt, one should go to the source. Why is the ‘US India Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Agreement‘ called 123? The answer lies in the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954. Article 123 of the act governs US ‘Cooperation with other countries‘. Some of the sections of special import in our context are considered below.

  1. Section 123a(2) : specifies mandatory adherence to IAEA safeguards by Non Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS).

  2. Section 128 : gives additional export criterion and procedures that US has to follow in case of agreements with NNWS.

  3. Section 129 : defines the conduct resulting in termination of nuclear exports by US. The effective date of this section is 10 March 1978. Further, the subsections : ‘129(1)(A) – detonation of a nuclear explosive device’ and ‘129(1)D – engagement in activities involving source or special nuclear material and having direct significance for manufacture or acquisition of nuclear explosive devices’ illustrate this conduct. (In case a country indulges in these activities after 10 March 1978, then US has to suspend cooperation agreement forthwith. But what happens when a country indulges in such acts after 1978 but before the singing of such an agreement?)

The Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty (NPT) has given Nuclear Weapon State (NWS) status only to 5 countries in their order of weapon acquisition : USA, Russia, UK, France & China.; rest are NNWS. What is the status of India, Pakistan and North Korea? Undefined! These 3 are known to have exploded nuclear devices apart from NWS, but are not recognised as NWS under NPT.

The pieces of jigsaw puzzle now start to fall in place. The 123 agreement could not even be conceived let alone delivered because India does not satisfy the criteria outlined earlier under the 1954 US act. Even the mighty President Bush could not alone do anything about it unless aided by the congress. Representative Henry J Hyde stepped in as the ‘In Vitro Fertilization‘ expert on 3 January 2006 to carry out the special procedure called the Hyde Act that made the conception of 123 baby possible. Hyde act has a curious section-104a that frees US president from the restrictive clutches of section 123, 128 & 129 of the mother Atomic energy act to enter in to an agreement with India that is neither a NWS nor a NNWS, or is not a signatory to NPT or CTBT. Further, it grants retrospective exemption to India prior to 18 July 2005. Why this date? That is when the Prime Minister and the President signed the joint declaration of Indo-US partnership. This India specific act, necessitated by the exigencies of existing US laws, is then turned into a virtue and exulted over as ‘……..One time exception for India’, ‘………special India specific arrangement’ or ‘………..the pariah can now join the nuclear high table‘.

True!,India has indeed been accorded this special privilege.But is it automatically a harbinger of good tidings or does it bode ill for our interests? At the outset it must be realized that it would be disingenuous to argue that India has nothing to do with Hyde Act or US Atomic Energy Act and that 123 is a standalone agreement. There won’t be any 123 agreement but for the Hyde Act. After all, 123 is a mere agreement, fathered by an act of US congress, with which US executive has to comply. Let us now see what Hyde Act has to say.

Hyde Act

It would be best here for the act to speak for itself. It does so quite eloquently.

  1. Section 102Sense of Congress‘ : (6) ‘…..enter in to an agreement with a country that has never been a state party to NPT, if,’ : (B) : ‘………..has a foreign policy that is congruent to that of the United States’; (C) ‘……induces the country to refrain from actions that would further the development of its nuclear weapons program‘; …..induce the country to give greater political and material support to the United States global & regional non-proliferation objectives, especially with respect to dissuading, isolating, and, if necessary, sanctioning and containing states that sponsor terrorism and terrorist groups…….’.

  2. Section 103Statement of Policy‘ : (a) ‘…..shall be the policies of United States’ : (1) ‘oppose the development of capability to produce nuclear weapons by any non-nuclear weapon state, within or outside of NPT; (5) ‘given the special sensitivity of equipment and technologies related to the enrichment of uranium, the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, and the production of heavy water, work with members of NSG, individually and collectively, to further restrict the transfer of such equipment and technologies, including to India‘.

  3. Section 103 ‘Statement of Policy’ : (b) ‘……the policies of United States with respect to South Asia‘ : (1) ‘…..achieve moratorium on the production of fissile material for nuclear explosive purposes by India, Pakistan and Peoples Republic of China; (3) Secure India’s : (B) ‘formal commitment to the statement of interdiction principles of proliferation security initiative‘ and (C) ‘public announcement of its decision to conform with ….the Australia group and … Wassenaar arrangement; (4) ‘Secure India’s full & active participation in United State’s efforts to dissuade, isolate, and, if necessary, sanction and contain Iran in its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons capability and the capability to enrich uranium or to reprocess nuclear fuel, and the means to deliver weapons of mass destruction’.

  4. Section 106Inoperability of determination and waivers‘ – A determination and any waiver under section 104 shall cease to be effective if the president determines that India has detonated a nuclear explosive device after the date of the enactment of this title‘.

  5. Section 202 ‘Findings’ : (4) ‘…providing IAEA inspectors with more information about, and broader access to, nuclear activities within the territory of non-nuclear weapon state parties’; (5) ‘The proposed scope of such expanded information and access has been negotiated by the member states of the IAEA in the form of a Model Additional Protocol….’.


Some of the things from the foregoing strike home straight away. India has to fully & actively participate in the United States efforts against Iran [section 103 (b)(4)]. India has to give political & material support to United States in its war on terror [Section 102(6)C]. Remember that US has arrogated the power since 2003 to decide what, who, whom, where, when & how of terror and of war. India shall have to just fall in line and follow, connive with & sponsor US, if this agreement is put in to operation. However, this is a naked assertion, & therefore easier to spot and weed out.

Even if one accounts for the principle of ‘Self Interest‘ (‘…it is in India’s self interest to cooperate with the only super power…‘), India should have the sovereignty to decide the circumstances, timing and choice of actions, and not be dragged into some ulterior US agenda. Unless, of course, a case is being made that US Self Interests are India’s self interests.

But what about that ‘formal commitment to the statement of interdiction principles of proliferation security initiative’?[section 103(b)(3)(B)]. It sounds pretty benign, isn’t it? Interdiction means ‘The prevention or destruction of, or interference with, enemy movements, communications, and lines of communication, as by gunfire, shelling, or bombing‘. Curiously, this interdiction principle comes in the same section where India, Pakistan & China have been bunched together under South Asia. Many Indians believe or like to believe that China has helped Pakistan in developing Nuclear weapons and Missile technology. Suppose tomorrow China were to pass on some information or material or technology that US determines amounts to proliferation. Wouldn’t India then be obliged to interdict or permit US to interdict from Indian territory; irrespective of what India wants or believes is in its self interest? If India finds the courage not to acquiesce, then the threat of 123 abrogation always looms large. Some may say, So what?, let us take the benefits, if any, while they last. There are 2 issues here. One is the bilateral 123 agreement. Then there would be commitments given to multilateral agencies like IAEA and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Running foul of them is not a misadventure India can afford. It would expose India to the danger being bracketed with countries like Iran & North Korea and could invite Chapter-7 United Nations resolutions against it in the Security Council.

Even then, Suppose we make our foreign policy subservient to US interests as mandated by Hyde Act. Are there then any tangible benefits to be gained from this sacrifice? No!, unless the Hyde act is amended significantly. Just 3 examples will suffice.

  1. If 123 agreement were to fall through, can others in NSG help India? The Section 103(a)(6) stipulates that if US exports were to be suspended or terminated pursuant to US law, it will be US policy to seek to prevent transfer of nuclear equipment, material or technology from other sources.

  2. Can India build a stockpile of nuclear fuel for the purpose of operating in perpetuity the nuclear reactors that would be put under the IAEA safeguards in perpetuity or for riding out any sanctions that might be imposed in response to Indian actions such as conducting another nuclear test? The preemption of such a scenario is ensured through section 103(b)(10) that is structured to limit nuclear power reactor fuel reserves to an amount commensurate with reasonable reactor operating requirements.

  3. Is India gaining access to the cherished ‘complete nuclear fuel cycle‘ – i.e. the enrichment of uranium, the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel,the production of heavy water, and the use of thorium in Fast Breeder reactors? In fact, US endeavours to actively deny this to India, individually and collectively with NSG, as per section 103(a)(5).

How do these findings square up with the assurances given by our sober Prime Minister in parliament and outside? Each one of his assurances flounders on the hard-nosed ‘Sections’ of the US Acts. However, if one reads the 123 agreement in the splendid isolation of utopia, then there is compelling literature of holy intent, lofty understanding and grand vision to convince even the most inveterate doubting Thomas in the panacea it represents for India. Singh is too intelligent and shrewd, though not a politician of usual ilk, to fall for this kind of subterfuge while turning a Nelson’s eye to the realpolitik of Mr. Atomic Energy Act & Dr. Hyde. May be he knows things that we are not privy to. That are not in the public domain by their very nature. May be Bush administration has assured Indian government that they will bypass, circumvent, break US laws to ensure that India gets what she wants. But, in the meanwhile, India has to bear with the process to get IAEA and NSG nods, and let the US administration secure the congress approval to 123. Once the approval is in place, administration will do everything it can to please India. One may easily buy this spin. After all Bush administration has showed scant regard for bill of rights, fourth amendment, in general US constitution and international laws. Yet, he too has to follow modicum of decorum and do the wrong things the right way. Can Singh trust Bush? Can India trust Bush? Actually, the right question to ask is ‘What is in it for Bush?’. Entire Bush presidency has been consumed by the project of new American century(PNAC) that seeks absolute world dominance in perpetuity in the interests of large American corporations and the profits they generate. India would be a useful pawn in this end game due to its ‘outsourcing & off-shoring’ hub status that compliments US business, its huge population & size that counter-balances that of China, its democracy that may find easy resonance with the common man in America, its strategic geopolitical location in Asia, and may be the existence of a not insignificant group of influential people who are willing to yoke their self interests to that of the US. If one reckons this as feverish imagination, then the best recourse would be to read the document ‘Rebuilding America’s Defenses‘ by PNAC to remove any misgivings.


In future, as this awareness spreads & grows in our country, and may be, just may be, India discovers credible strategies to renegotiate the deal on far more favourable terms, it would be still valuable to seek answers to some pertinent questions.

  • What does the ‘Minimum Credible Nuclear Deterrence’ (MCND) Doctrine really mean? What are its practical Implications? Does it have any relevance in view of the overwhelming superiority of USA & Russia, and the significant lead enjoyed by China? Are the economic & opportunity costs of pursuing worth it?

  • Will it be a better option to sign NPT and CTBT and enter the multilateral forum of NSG? Will it give more options for sourcing & cooperation?

  • What are the implications for our indigenous nuclear research program?

  • What are the cost / benefit aspects of other energy sources? (Comparison of various energy sources)

US-India partnership declaration of 18 July 2005 has neatly divided the time in two eras, before and after. The declaration was hailed as Historic, and historic it is. Unfortunately, not in the sense word ‘historic’ is usually used & understood. No matter how cleverly the 123 agreement is word-engineered, it can’t hide this fact. Ironically, while US has had the benefit of discussions within its congress, why have we avoided an informed debate in parliament and at other forums in a transparent manner? Why has UPA avoided sharing crucial policy matters with allies and opposition?

These are the real decisive issues we have to ponder and act upon in the days ahead. We too have a duty in democracy, if we want to enjoy its fruits.


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3 Responses to “Blinkered Vision(?) : Unravelling the Nuclear Debate.”

  1. India Broadband Forum Says:

    about that 123 agreement…

    Interesting pessimistic-realistic view on the nuke deal. Check it out.

    nuclear-debate/]Blinkered Vision(?) : Unravelli…

  2. IndiaBroadband #53 Says:

    Re: about that 123 agreement…

    Good post, goes into the wording of the deal a little more, on the surface a literal reading implies all that’s said to abide and assist the US whenever it declares someone is breaking the law. That means we become a very valuable ally, whenever someone in our vicinity needs to be strong armed into doing anything.

    The short term win is several billion in plant contracts that go exclusively to the US. Those two factors would explain why the Americans have been very keen, if not impatient to complete the deal as soon as possible.

    Singh is in Moscow atm talking about various deals, military, civil etc. I’m sure the Russians would like to sell us even more reactors than they already have. The hard part with either party has been will the suppliers, the NSG agree to give us any fuel to put in it. So the US comes forward with this sweetner attached. They can somehow make the NSG think we will be trustworthy and deflect any objections the Chinese or others may have. We start in earnest along the road to going nuclear, and its expected to pay off, eventually down the road.

    It’s not clear to me as yet what the fallout if any there will be if we delay on this. Oil prices will be kept high so long as the tension in the middle east continues. Our energy requirements will only continue to rise as time goes on. So there will always be an intl. incentive to get us to go nuclear as it will relieve the pressure on oil prices to a certain extent not to mention reducing carbon emissions.

    It almost feels like help the US out today and it will not go unnoticed, as will the opposite too i expect

    ..what about tomorrow, the intangibles which are not at the negotiating table today and which we have no idea of their worth.

    How expensive will it be to snub the US ?

  3. Sanatanan Says:

    Your readers as well as yourself may like to see the blog at
    which highlights some of the reasons as to why India should walk away from this deal.

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