Wednesday, January 9, 2008

IAEA talks may be wrapped up soon

January 3, 2008

NEW DELHI: Despite a warning from the Left not to operationalise the Indo-US nuclear deal, a government team is currently in Vienna for what is being billed as the final round of negotiations for a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Taking full advantage of the Left’s nod for talks with the IAEA, the government expects to have a draft document in its hands by the weekend.

But the fate of the agreement, which is a key element of the nuclear deal, remains uncertain in the face of Left insistence that it will not allow the government to proceed any further.

The completion of the safeguards discussions with the IAEA may just be a ritual the government is going through to satisfy its international interlocutors.

On the other hand, it does bring India a step closer to finishing the formalities so that the nuclear deal can be operationalised when the political climate is right.

The end-game is still several stages away. After the government clears the draft agreement, the document has to go to the IAEA’s board of governors for approval.

The next step is to seek an unconditional waiver, based on the safeguards agreement, from the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group so that India can buy nuclear reactors, fuel and other dual-use materials from the international market. The final step will be a stamp of approval from the US Congress on the agreement.

Only then will the nuclear deal be signed and given effect, ending India’s nuclear isolation.

A senior government source acknowledged that the Left will have a say at every stage. The draft safeguards agreement will be placed before the UPA-Left joint committee on the nuclear deal.

The government will take it to the IAEA board meeting in March only after a green signal from the committee. The source said that negotiations with the IAEA have been smooth and satisfactory, with the nuclear watchdog agreeing to incorporate India’s concerns in the safeguards agreement.

However good the text, it will require delicate negotiations and some hard bargaining, in which political developments will play a key role, to get a go-ahead from the Left.

If the Nandigram fire influenced the Left to soften its intransigence and allow the government to talk to the IAEA, it’s the Congress that’s on the backfoot now, after its twin defeats in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.

A Congress leader admitted that the party does not have the stomach to indulge in a war of nerves with the Left in its current state.

On the other hand, the BJP’s successive electoral victories have given the Left a fright and could persuade it to allow the Congress some space for manoeuvre, to shore up the government’s image.

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