India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement: A Diplomatic Overview

Press briefing July 18, 2005 - Prime Minister Manmomohan Singh with President Bush/ Image source: Indian Express


‘I am particularly pleased that we have reached an understanding on the implementation of our agreement on civil nuclear cooperation of July 18, 2005’[1], the then Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh, remarked in a joint statement with US President George Bush. Through this declaration, India was able to navigate through roughly 30 years of nuclear apartheid imposed by the USA and other industrial nations after ‘Peaceful Nuclear Explosion’ (PNE) code-named ‘Smiling Buddha’ in 1974, conducted at Pokhran, Rajasthan. This deal assumes significance as the international nuclear structural framework got altered for what, T.V Paul, a professor at McGill University calls, a ‘rising global nuclear power with responsible nuclear handling track records, India. This article attempts to explore the Indian journey towards the pursuit of the deal, its significance and where the deal stands today.

Historical context

India ventured into nuclear realm right after independence when the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was constituted in 1948. Owing to two quick wars (one, a surprise attack by China in 1962 and war against Pakistan in 1965), India was forced to test a PNE (Peaceful Nuclear Explosion codenamed ‘Smiling Buddha’) instigating USA to impose a sanction which restricted US commitment under 1963 agreement. Again India did nuclear proliferation in 1998 at Pokhran code-named ‘Operation Shakti’ (prompted by decades of intelligence report of Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear pursuit as per ‘The Unending Game’ by the Indian intelligence agency, RAW’s farmer Chief) and declared itself a Nuclear weapon state while it was under sanction and there were restrictions on India’s Space, Missile, and Nuclear Programme.

Operation Shakti/ Image source: PTI

Relentless Diplomatic Overture

Relentless diplomacy and level of uncertainty seemed obvious as suggested in a book Choices: Inside the making of India’s foreign policy written by the then Foreign Secretary of India, Shivshankar Menon. He writes, ‘Not until 3:45 a.m., the day of the vote were we confident that the clearance would be granted, and the formal decision was made later that day, at 11:30 a.m., on Saturday, Sept. 6, 2008’ (NSG approval).

US law required NWS to choose the sites to be placed under IAEA safeguard but India insisted on reserving this right in addition to the condition that safeguard would be allowed till the nuclear supplies are insured.  Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) placed Fast Breeder Reactor under civilian category but argued it as ‘proprietary technologies’ hence to be out of safeguard. President Bush personally forced this issue towards Indian bucket. India, through various steps put forth its credentials for such unique treatment in nuclear trade. India agreed to subject international supplies and its civilian program to IAEA safeguards. Also joined USA towards strengthening non-proliferation regimes, Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and joining export control regimes. USA agreed to make necessary amendments in its domestic laws to allow a non-signatory to NPT to trade in nuclear technology and materials.

It seems quite paradoxical that NSG, whose origin entails extreme suspicion triggered by 1974 PNE, was instrumental in making Indo-US deal a reality. India got NSG clearance on Sept.8, 2008 but the journey was never easy. NSG is a political and commercial cartel of 48 countries. Since 1992, it allowed the transfer of nuclear-related dual-use equipment, material and technology to countries which allow a full inspection to its nuclear program. NSG works on a consensus basis with each member exercising veto power. Real opposition (to Indo-US Nuclear Deal) came from ‘mini six’ (Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway and Netherland) on the pretext that India has not signed NPT. The diplomatic offensive by India fuel by a major, USA, led to rest their opposition almost overnight. China, who was trading hard against the deal, did not want to be seen as a lone disrupter, hence, dropped her opposition and agreed for the waiver. India wanted ‘clean’ exemption with no strings attached which it was eventually granted when all opposition died down. India’s red line was respected, namely, no reference to testing, no discriminatory provisions and no periodic review of India’s behaviour or the exemption, thus permitting permanent full civil nuclear cooperation- the “clean” exemption that India had sought.

Domestic opposition was more formidable one than the global one. ‘Natwar (the then Foreign Minister) was adamant. He wanted the deal but Prime Minister wasn’t sure he could sell it in New Delhi’ writes Condoleezza Rice, the then Secretary of state, in her book titled No Higher Honor. There was formidable opposition back in New Delhi. There was considerable suspicion among India political and bureaucratic circle regarding US intension.  Some saw lacuna in US commitment owing to its track records (backtrack on 1963 agreement for a lifetime supply of uranium) and bilateral history, while others threatened to withdraw su­pport to 14 parties coalition government. Eventually, Communist Party of India withdrew support forcing PM Manmohan Singh Government to face No-Confidence motion. He and his govt. escaped with a narrow majority (275-256).

Image source:

Where it stands today

Years of negotiation finally led to much-publicised Indo-US Nuclear Deal complemented by staggeringly tall promises. The significance of this agreement is acknowledged by the fact that this enabled India to break through the hard shell of global nuclear power circle (grant of NSG waiver) and place itself at par with other recognised Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) under Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), even without signing the Treaty, in a way, effectively mending international nuclear architecture towards its cause. A decade down the line, until the end of 2018, India has 22 nuclear reactors (14 are under IAEA safeguard) in operation in 7 nuclear power plants with an installed capacity of 6780MW. However, a mere 1.9 per cent of total electricity generation capacity is produced by Nuclear Power Corporation’s Power-Plant. As per reply to a question in parliament, 2.93 per cent of overall electricity generation in the year 2017-18 is from atomic energy which is marginally high as compared to 2007 (before the Deal)which was 2.6 per cent. As of 2018, nuclear power generation capacity is 6780 MW which is an increase from 2720 MW in 2005. The increase could majorly be attributed to five new reactors (Kaiga unit 4, Rajasthan 5 & 6 and Koodankulam1&2) construction of which started in 2002-03 which obviously cannot be attributed to the waiver.

On a promising note, Currently, India has 15 of its reactors under IAEA safeguard and since the sighing of Indo-US nuclear deal and subsequent waiver, India has signed a peaceful nuclear agreement with US, France, Russia, Canada, Argentina, Australia, Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, Japan, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Korea. These pacts made available the enriched uranium which made Indian Atomic Power plants to operate at a maximum potential which earlier was not possible because of the shortage of Uranium. The deal has more international strategic and structural connotation. George Perkovich, Vice President at Carnegie Endowment at International Peace, explains the global implication of the US-India Nuclear Deal. As per his analysis, the assumptions that drove nuclear deal were the balance of power competition supersedes rule-based international regimes, need to restrain the only power that can challenge USA militarily by passing the buck to regional next with a similar aim, India, a robust well-functioning democracy with flourishing diaspora must be raised in importance to draw closer partnership with the USA.


Countering the over-stretched pessimism of the deal being antithetical to world nuclear trade framework, T.V Paul, a professor at McGill University rather exclaims that international security architecture can be better served if a ‘rising global nuclear power with responsible nuclear handling track record remains a part of the regime rather than outside it. Material gains on the ground are subject to the socio-economic and political nitty-gritty in addition to the market and legal complementarities but there’s no denying of the fact that after the deal (Indo US nuclear deal), India’s global stature and say in international security architecture has been held high. Concerning material gains, India needs to bring various stakeholders on board, diversify its sources and most importantly negotiate strategically on her strengths. As the phrase goes, ‘with great power comes the great responsibility’, there is a catch in the international anarchical system. When a recognised power cedes the responsibility associated with the power, it risks ceding the power and influence too (ex. USA- Taliban agreement).

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Abhishek Verma

Abhishek Verma is studying MA in Politics (Specialisation in International Relations) School of International Studies (SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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