A US-Indian accord on civilian nuclear cooperation, once hailed as one of the most significant foreign-policy achievements of the Bush presidency, is on the ropes and may die before it is ever approved.
US officials are working with the government of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to keep the agreement alive despite intensifying political opposition in India – a country President Bush likes to refer to as the world's largest democracy. The setback comes at a particularly sensitive moment in US relations with South Asia, as the stability of neighboring Pakistan and the regime of US ally Gen. Pervez Musharraf appears to be increasingly in question.
The good news, most proponents and critics alike of the nuclear deal say, is that the improved relations between the United States and India that resulted from five years of intensive talks are likely to remain on an upward trajectory.
"India is a key and growing player on every issue that matters to Americans in the 21st century – whether it's terrorism or nuclear proliferation, spreading democracy, HIV/AIDS, climate change, or energy. So the logic behind improving US-Indian relations is compelling no matter who is in power in Washington," says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who has advised three administrations on South Asian issues. "Even if the nuclear deal never goes through, other parts of a strategic partnership will move forward."
Political factors have probably put the deal into "hibernation," adds Mr. Riedel, who is now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. But he says the "logic" of strengthened US-Indian ties means it is likely to reemerge at some point and in some form.
For the best?
Other experts, in particular those from the nonproliferation community who had a dim view of the nuclear accord, say putting the controversial agreement aside may be the best outcome for US-India relations.
"Rather than the springboard the administration promised, this deal turned into a stumbling block on the road to a new partnership with India," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. "If this is in the deep freeze, maybe we can get to some of the other items on the bilateral agenda that the preoccupation with the nuclear deal pushed to the back of the queue." Among those items, he says, are trade, visas for qualified Indians, clean-coal technology, and "developing other ways of energy cooperation that make more sense."
The nuclear agreement, which was to pave the way for the US to provide India with nuclear fuel for a new generation of power plants, has come under intense attack from left-wing parties in India who fear a loss of sovereignty from closer ties with the US. Last week, Prime Minister Singh told Mr. Bush in a telephone conversation that the deal, which the White House had hoped India would approve by the end of the year, faced intensifying opposition.
The result, India observers say, is that Singh will hold off indefinitely from seeking parliamentary approval rather than risking a political row that could threaten his government. But such a delay, even if it ultimately resulted in approval by the Indian Parliament, could jeopardize the accord by pushing its final ratification in the US deeper into the presidential politics of 2008. Observers here say Congress would be less likely to approve it then.
Although the Bush administration had received one positive vote from Congress on the nuclear deal, some experts said growing doubts in the US about the deal are also a factor in the accord's fall from grace.
"Many members of Congress are growing increasingly skeptical of what the Bush administration is negotiating," says Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, a longtime supporter of multilateral nonproliferation efforts. "It's heartening to see the members coming over to me and shaking their head at what the Bush administration went so far to accept."
In authorizing the Bush administration to conclude a civilian nuclear agreement with India, the House passed legislation last year that placed a number of conditions on a deal, such as requiring India to adhere to various multilateral controls.
Bush has said such conditions are not binding – a position that grates against even some Republicans – while some Indian politicians hold up such measures as evidence of American attempts to impose US foreign policy on India.
Potential boost to bombs
Representative Markey says the nuclear deal would boost India's bombmaking capacity perhaps sevenfold, to as many as 50 bombs a year. Members of Congress, he adds, are increasingly concerned about India's continuing close ties to Iran in the energy field.
"India is not serious" about confronting Iran over its program, he says. "That's the issue that could really break the deal in the halls of the House and Senate."
Markey casts doubt on the deal's political future in the US, saying he does not believe a Democratic president would adopt it. But others note that both Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama supported it in a Senate vote, although with some reservations.
Jon Wolfsthal, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that "job No. 1" of any deal should be "making sure nuclear facilities are secure." But that issue is not addressed "at all,", he says. He believes the Bush administration has not "been keen on the nonproliferation agenda," but a new administration of either party might view things differently, he says.
In any case, others say the accord reflects a bipartisan desire to cement relations with India – in recognition of both its track record on nonproliferation and its strategic place as a stable democracy in a region of key importance to the battle with Islamic extremism.
"The fact is that if the US wants a partner it can rely on in the region, that partner is India," says Riedel of Brookings. "In the first place, India's record on proliferation [of nuclear materials and know-how] is virtually spotless," he says. "But India also knows what it is to be the target of Islamic jihadism, so there's an abundance of issues to carry a growing bilateral relationship into the 21st century."