India nuke deal meets wary Congress

Bush presses for approval of a pact taking a different approach to nonproliferation. Some see it as rewarding renegade behavior.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Bush administration's landmark nuclear deal with India could alter the world's nonproliferation regime, and rewrite the geopolitical rules of South Asia.

If it passes Congress in its current form, that is. And that is far from a foregone conclusion.

From President Bush on down, White House officials in recent days have insisted that the India agreement should remain untouched, lest it unravel. But hearings on the controversial pact begin in the Senate next week, and many Senate and House members have indicated they may want to pencil in restrictions on India's behavior, or otherwise modify the deal.

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"It's not going to come out the same way it went in," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.

The result of months of intense negotiations, the US nuclear agreement with India was signed by Mr. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on March 2, during Bush's visit to India.

Under the deal, India is to separate its civilian and nuclear energy programs over the next eight years. In return, it will receive US civilian nuclear expertise, and nuclear fuel, to help it meet ambitious goals for growth in its reactor program.

The civilian plans would be subject to international inspections - a first for India, which is not a signatory to the Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Military facilities would remain unchecked by the international community, however. And the deal does not require oversight of India's prototype fast-breeder reactors, which, when operational, can quickly produce large amounts of plutonium.

Bush on Wednesday urged Congress to approve the deal. Despite the fact that it stands outside the NPT regime, India has proved itself to be a nonproliferating nation, said Bush, and a reliable steward of nuclear technology.

Helping India produce civilian reactors will lessen its demand for oil in the long run. In turn, this will reduce upward pressure on oil prices, said Bush.

"It's in our interest that India use nuclear power to power their economic growth," said the president at a stop in Wheeling, W.Va.

Other supporters of the deal note that India is a rising democracy and an economically vibrant nation with which the US desires a closer relationship.

Disagreement over India's nuclear technology for years has been the main obstacle to warmer US-India ties. Removing this obstacle would cause a tectonic shift in the geopolitics of the region, say its supporters, with the US gaining a possible counterbalance to the influence of China, and perhaps even Iran.

"India has the sense that finally they've come in from the cold," said Salman Haidar, a former Indian diplomat and senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, at a Council on Foreign Relations seminar last week.

But in the US, lawmakers aren't rushing to promote the deal. Instead, many have seemed wary of approving a pact that they see as rewarding a nation that has long snubbed world nonproliferation efforts.

For the deal to be completed, Congress must approve legislation exempting India from US laws that restrict trade with non-NPT nations. Before that happens, many lawmakers may seek new conditions on the US-India agreement, Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said this week.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has given no indication of support - or disapproval - of the deal. But one respected former lawmaker voiced objections earlier this week.

Former Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia said the deal would harm the vital interests of the US.

"If I were still in Congress, I would be skeptical and looking at conditions that could be attached," said Senator Nunn in an interview with The Washington Post.

In general, critics of the deal worry that the administration is making a wager that the geostrategic benefits of engaging India will outweigh the risks of increased nuclear proliferation.

By exempting India's fast-breeder reactor program from oversight, and in effect allowing India to continue building up its nuclear arsenal apace, the US appears to be rewarding a nation previously branded as a nuclear renegade. This is a bad example for Iran, and North Korea, say critics.

It might encourage Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Ukraine, among other nations, to rethink their current nonnuclear status.

Nor is it clear that India has the same geostrategic concerns about China that the US does. And India is eagerly pursuing energy deals with Iran.

"So this is a very big bet, a very big bet. It could be as big a bet as Iraq," said Michael Krepon, president emeritus of the Stimson Center, at last week's Council on Foreign Relations meeting.

Among the conditions that lawmakers might try to place on the deal: inspection of India's fast-breeder program or a ban on further Indian production of fissile material for weapons.

At the least, "this isn't going to go as fast as the administration would like," says Mr. Kimball of the Arms Control Association.

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