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U.S., India revive sweeping nuke deal

But the pact, which some dub a 'sweetheart deal,' may not pass the US Congress in time.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 10, 2008

SOURCES: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), World Nuclear Association/© 2008 MCT

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Considered a lost hope just last month, a US-India nuclear energy deal has sprung back to life and may yet end up one of the most significant geopolitical initiatives of the Bush presidency.

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The pact is designed to provide India with American nuclear fuel and technology for civilian power while allowing it to retain its military nuclear arsenal. The accord is envisioned by the Bush administration as a way of cementing relations with the world's largest democracy while enhancing its role as a counterpoise to a rising China.

Both President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lauded the deal when they met Wednesday on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Japan. Mr. Singh invoked nuclear cooperation as part of a new strategic relationship that has the US and India standing "shoulder to shoulder."

But the deal, reached between President Bush and Prime Minister Singh in 2005, still requires parliamentary assent in India and congressional approval in the US. While Mr. Singh appears to have raised the pact from the dead by eking out a small majority in favor, the accord could still get bogged down in the US.

Some members of Congress threaten to withhold approval unless India gives up its growing ties with Iran, while others have raised objections to a plan they say could end up providing India the uranium fuel it would need to produce more nuclear weapons.

And even if those concerns are met, there simply may no longer be enough time – given the approvals needed from key international players – for Congress to reach a vote on the deal.

"Does Congress have time to get this done before the year is out? We're hearing happy talk in Washington and New Delhi that everyone will have time, but I don't think so," says Darryl Kimball, executive director of Arms Control Association in Washington.

Before Bush can send a final deal to Congress, it must first pass through hoops at the International Atomic Energy Agency, and with the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The IAEA, the United Nations agency that oversees nuclear development, will be asked to approve a special safeguards agreement that covers a limited number of civilian reactors – while leaving India's military program outside those controls.