Key Indo-US Nuclear Cooperation Deal Edges Ahead

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - India is closely watching developments this week on Capitol Hill, where a crucial bilateral nuclear cooperation deal jumped its first major hurdle Tuesday and faces a second test later this week.

With strong bipartisan support, the House International Relations Committee approved President Bush's groundbreaking, controversial initiative that will grant India access to American nuclear fuel and technology for the first time in 30 years.

The deal, agreed to in principle by Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh almost a year ago, requires changes to U.S. law, and the committee voted 37-5 in favor of a bipartisan bill first submitted by the administration last March.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will consider a separate bill on Thursday.

The deal has been contentious in both countries.

In India, some experts and scientists said it was not in India's strategic interests while leftists complained about India aligning itself too closely to the U.S.

In the U.S., the bill co-sponsored by International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and ranking Democrat Tom Lantos had a rough ride, too. The committee held five hearings, held numerous briefings with administration officials, and conducted its own research.

A parallel process in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has produced four hearings, two closed intelligence briefings, and the submission of more than 170 questions for the record to the State Department.

Both chambers' committees have heard security specialists' arguments that the deal would jeopardize international non-proliferation efforts.

Some of the amendments considered by the House committee ahead of Tuesday's vote reflected those concerns.

Three key amendments failed, however. They sought to force India to declare a unilateral moratorium on the production of fissile missile or nuclear weapons; to sign a treaty prohibiting the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons; and to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Amendments that did pass included one stipulating that the changes required for the deal would apply only to India and not to nuclear cooperation with other countries.

Another amendment said the administration should "encourage" New Delhi not to increase production of fissile material production. It requires a report to Congress on steps taken by the U.S. to ensure that its cooperation with India does not help the latter's nuclear weapons program.

Critics of the deal argue that India -- a non-signatory to the NPT that carried out nuclear tests in 1998, declaring itself a nuclear power -- should not be given preferential treatment lest this send the wrong message to other countries seeking nuclear capability.

The White House countered that the agreement would bring India into the non-proliferation "mainstream" by placing its civilian nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. It also rejected attempts to compare India to rogue nations like Iran and North Korea.

The bill approved by the House committee Tuesday makes reference in a non-binding section to India's democratic credentials, saying it may be in the U.S. interests to enter into a nuclear cooperation agreement with a non-NPT signatory if that country meets certain criteria.

These were, among others, that the country "demonstrated responsible [nonproliferation] behavior," was a functioning democracy, had a foreign policy congruent to that of the U.S., and was working with the U.S. in key foreign policy initiatives related to non-proliferation.

The Iran factor

Nowhere has that cooperation with the U.S. been more closely watched over the past year than on the Iranian nuclear issue. India wields considerable influence in the developing world, where Tehran looks for support for its nuclear program.

Last September, Rep. Lantos warned India that it would "pay a very hefty price" if it disregarded U.S. concerns about Iran.

Despite warnings from Tehran and strong opposition from left-wing domestic quarters, Singh's government twice broke with its developing nation allies to vote against Iran at the IAEA, winning high praise from U.S. lawmakers.

The House bill seeks continuing Indian cooperation in this area: A non-enforceable section calls on the U.S. to secure India's full participation in "efforts to dissuade, isolate, and, if necessary, sanction and contain Iran for its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction."

In India, some observers expected the bill's references to Iran to give the agreement's Indian opponents, especially left-wing members of the ruling coalition, additional ammunition with which to attack the government.

Others did not envisage particular difficulties, especially given that the Iran references in the bill are "sense of Congress" sentiments and not legally binding, while the deal overall holds significant benefits for India.

"If international politics operates on the basis of self-interest, few in India would argue that New Delhi abandon its long quest for nuclear energy for the sake of Iran," Indian political analyst C. Raja Mohan argued in the Express daily on Wednesday.

A key aim of the agreement, which forms part of a broader Indo-U.S. strategic partnership, is to provide populous India's fast-growing economy with civilian nuclear energy, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said earlier was both cleaner than fossil fuel-powered sources, but would also make India "less reliant on unstable sources of oil and gas."

Once the separate House and Senate bills have been passed by the two chambers, the two would need to be folded into one joint measure and then put to a final vote.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow