Byline by M J Akbar: Who will pay the bill?
Never underestimate the ability of a lame duck Senate to cripple any idea that appears in its path. However, the latest episode in the long-running effort to structure a nuclear deal between India and the United States is a bit of a non-event. The US Senate approved a bill that included all the clauses that India, speaking formally through its Parliament, had objected to, and added amendments that will raise more than an eyebrow in Delhi. I cannot see, for instance, India reading from the same page as America on Iran’s nuclear programme, or, more important, surrendering its independent right to test again. The rising star of the Democrats, Senator Obama, has lent his name to an amendment that prevents India from storing fuel for its imported reactors. Too much conciliation might be required in the next stage, when the bill will be "reconciled" between the Senate and House versions. Common sense suggests that reconciliation seeks to bridge the difference between what has been passed, rather than eliminate clauses wholesale. Come December, we shall see what we shall see. In the meantime, let us celebrate the return of calm and maturity to the foreign office in Delhi.
When the House of Representatives passed its version of the bill, a mild form of hysteria broke out, guided by mandarins in external affairs and contract-employees in the Prime Minister’s Office. Selected journalists were briefed to lead a media chorus. You might have thought that India had been elected member of the Security Council, and defeated Pakistan in both war and cricket on the same day. This time, the temper of the reaction is both realistic and reassuring. You can see the calm hand of foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee and foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon at work. The new message is clear and welcome: India wants a nuclear deal, but it is not going to be written with only an American pen.
Since there is a pause in the affairs of men, it might be appropriate to take a larger look. The basis of the nuclear deal is the agreement signed between President George Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 18 July 2005. Since then, there have been three important developments, at least two of which are certainly inter-related, and the third very possibly so. The consequence of these events is that the nuclear map of the world has changed one more time.
From July this year, there has been a growing feeling, now reaching certainty, that the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq has been a failure; that victory in Iraq is impossible, and the best scenario possible is an orderly, phased withdrawal in which power is transferred to a government in Baghdad that is not overtly hostile to the West. Such a transition is impossible without the cooperation of Iraq’s neighbours. There have been subtle, and not so subtle, shifts in the dynamic of America’s relations with most of the neighbours.
When George Bush was still in charge of events, he declared that three nations constituted an "axis of evil": Iran, Syria and North Korea. Now that events are in charge of Bush, the meaning of "evil" is being renegotiated. Bush accepts that Syria cannot be treated as an outcast, and while he will not yet extend that same consideration to Iran, any realist knows that a settlement in Iraq, if there is ever going to be one, is impossible without Iran’s cooperation. Iran has very sensible diplomats. They know that it makes no sense to tease a defeated elephant, but they also understand that it is a weakened animal. If the American mission in Iraq had gone according to Donald Rumsfeld’s dreams, Iran would have been vulnerable today. Now that the war has gone as per Iran’s expectations, America is vulnerable.
The first country to exploit this vulnerability was the third member of the axis of evil, North Korea. It is highly unlikely that North Korea would have dared to test three years ago, when the perception of American power was still in the "shock and awe" dimension. It is also moot whether North Korea’s principal, and sole, benefactor, would have permitted North Korea to do so. America’s muted response has justified the Pyongyang-Beijing calculation. The irony is multiple. America went to Iraq ostensibly to hold the nuclear line, and is emerging from the war with the nuclear line in tatters. A door that was pushed ajar by India and Pakistan in 1998 has been thrown open by North Korea and China eight years later. This eases the pressure on Iran significantly, since it would be a very brave, if not foolhardy, American President who would now plan an invasion of Iran.
China has been swift to exploit emerging opportunity. It is strengthening Pakistan’s capability dramatically, and has just signed up to provide Egypt with a credible nuclear programme. I presume no one with even marginal IQ indulges in the fiction that nuclear reactors are really meant for peaceful purposes. If Egypt needed them for peaceful purposes it would have invested in them at least a generation ago. Egypt knows that with Israel a nuclear power, and Iran on the verge of becoming one, it cannot be a regional player without similar capability. The Saudis certainly have the finances to become a nuclear power and Latin America is not going to remain obediently docile. Japan is nuclear in all but name. It will not deviate from its official, pacific line, but if its self-interest requires a degree of deception, so be it.
The next decade is going to be one of great flux in the nuclear game. This game will be played with the kind of dexterity, determination and patience that India showed during those long decades when we pretended that our nuclear programme was for peaceful purposes only. It is going to be a decade for building parallel alliances. It is not the moment in history when India should willingly tie itself down to any apron string, even if that apron has the enticing brand value of America. It is no accident that one of the conditions that American legislators want to impose upon India is that it must become part of American policy vis-à-vis Iran. China is free of any such encumbrance, and is playing the nuclear field with careful abandon. It is supplying nuclear fuel and technology to its friends, a point that is registering sharply with mature nations who now see such friendship as critical to their security concerns. Such nations will express their gratitude by encouraging the import of Chinese manufactures, giving China a double whammy. China’s eggs are being spread across the world, to fertilise and hatch at whatever pace the local climate will permit. India can see only one basket.
There is still time for contours to shift. And while there are still too many knee-jerk cheerleaders in the chorus surrounding government, the drums are thankfully silent inside government. Prime Minister Singh has made certain commitments to Parliament; it is now up to Washington to ensure that those commitments are honoured.
When the deal was at an incipient stage last year, I recall asking an American friend only one question: How much political capital does George Bush have left in reserve after Iraq, and how much of it is he willing to spend on a nuclear deal with India? More than a year later, reserves of capital have depleted further, and we will know the full answer to that two-part question soon enough.