French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s official visit to India has generated a lot of buzz around the nuclear deals that have been signed. However, the visit is significant also for bolstering international efforts to bring India into the nuclear mainstream and discussed developments on the Iranian nuclear program, owing to ongoing European discussions with Tehran.
France has helped India in its nuclear growth by, for instance, offering to help India develop its breeder program in 1969, supplying nuclear fuel to the Tarapur I and II reactors (after the US reneged on its contractual obligation to supply uranium fuel for the Tarapur reactors), setting up a thorium extraction facility at Alwaye in Kerala, and a Heavy Water plant at Baroda in Gujarat.
While international compulsions forced France to halt its cooperation in the 1990s, it is noteworthy that France, along with Israel and Russia, were the only countries in the world which did not condemn India’s 1998 nuclear tests. Furthermore, French nuclear support to India was evident in its cooperation with India even before the Indo-US nuclear agreement of 2008.
France had declared that it would support India’s civilian nuclear program even before the Indo-US agreement was reached in 2005. It was the first country to sign a civil nuclear agreement with India following the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver which preceded the formal Indo-US agreement.
Also, the agreement with France not only assures fuel supply to India but also allows the reprocessing of spent fuel under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, while the Hyde Act, which governs the Indian nuclear cooperation with the United States does not allow cooperation for reprocessing.
India’s continued progress in the nuclear field and nuclear acquisitions have been decried by many nonproliferation pundits. The Indo-US nuclear deal was extremely divisive in the NSG, with NPT hardliner countries decrying the arm-twisting tactics adopted by the Americans. Therefore, there has been vocal criticism in the West over nuclear agreements made with India.
Support for a nuclear agreement with India is shared across the political spectrum in France with minimal fears about proliferation. This is made evident by the emphasis on France’s nuclear relationship with India by political rivals Jacques Chirac and Nicholas Sarkozy, post their ascension to power.
Sarkozy’s visit to India gains greater significance when the financial figures which the nuclear deal entails are studied. While bilateral trade between India and France stood at US$2.99 billion in 2006, the agreement between the French nuclear supplier company, Areva and the state-run Nuclear Power Corporation of India to establish two atomic power plants of 1,650MW capacity each in Maharashtra is estimated at around US$9.3 billion. With prospects of another four reactors in the offing, the financial implications are immense.
A key obstacle to the nuclear agreement was India’s recently approved Civil Nuclear Liability Act, which has caused concern among a number of countries over its compensation clauses in case of a nuclear accident. France has asked India to revisit the Act and conform to international standards so that their companies are not inhibited. It has signed an interim nuclear agreement pending further discussions on resolving the Act’s controversial provisions which would need to be amended before the agreement can be operationalized.
For India, in addition to bolstering foreign investment in its nuclear energy sector, the French President’s visit is also important to boost India’s claim for inclusion into the NSG, which would hasten India’s acceptance into the list of accepted nuclear weapons states. India could also press for French support at the NSG since it could then gain access to the advanced enrichment and reprocessing technology that it covets.
Additionally, France has also been a supporter of India’s inclusion as a permanent member into the United Nations Security Council. President Sarkozy’s visit to India soon after President Barack Obama’s unprecedented support for India’s candidature to the UN Security Council would provide the country another opportunity to highlight the international support it has garnered from the international community.
Finally, Sarkozy’s visit adds another dimension to the international efforts against Iran’s illegal nuclear program. India has been urged by Western states to take a stronger stance against Iran, and India’s position becomes more important after being elected to be a non-permanent member of the Security Council for the next two years.
Sarkozy has maintained a strong position against Iran, and according to the Wikileak disclosures, a senior Sarkozy aide has termed Iran a “Fascist State”. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh delivered his first public rebuke of the Iranian nuclear program in a joint press briefing during his visit to Paris in October 2008. Sarkozy could be expected to continue to push India into taking a stronger position vis-à-vis Iran, especially in light of the failure of the Iran-EU talks scheduled for December 2010.