Indo-US Nuclear Deal Clears First Hurdle

With the House International Relations Committee (HIRC) of the United States House of Representatives gaining overwhelming bipartisan support for a draft bill to allow resumption of civilian nuclear commerce between India and the U.S., the path is clearer for the controversial nuclear deal signed a year ago between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Under the Bush-Singh agreement, India would be allowed to keep its nuclear weapons, but must separate its civilian nuclear facilities from military ones and agree to place the former under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.

No less than 37 members of the 50-member HIRC voted in favor of the bill, on Tuesday, while only five voted against it. The legislation is now slated for a “markup” to the full House of Representatives. Thereafter, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to mark up a separate version for the Senate.

With this will begin the final push to get U.S. Congress to make a one-time exception for India in the global nuclear-military order. Significantly, one of the amendments approved by HIRC emphasizes that the change in rules for the 45-member nuclear suppliers group (NSG) would apply solely to India and no other country.

Another non-binding amendment says that the U.S. should "secure India’s full and active participation in U.S. efforts to dissuade, isolate and, if necessary, sanction and contain Iran for its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear weapons capability (including the capability to enrich or process nuclear materials) and the means to deliver weapons of mass destruction."

Both supporters and opponents of the deal are mobilizing themselves hard for the final thrust. Among the supporters are administration officials, a large number of Republican legislators, and the powerful lobby of rich and influential nonresident Indians settled in the U.S., all backed by sections of the Indian media who act as crusaders for the deal.

Already, a series of stories and articles promoting the agreement, based on selective back-room official briefings, have appeared in India in a well-orchestrated campaign. President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and now Vice President Dick Cheney have all thrown their weight behind the U.S. and India Nuclear Cooperation Promotion Act, 2006.

Opposing the deal are peace-minded scientists, numerous nonproliferation experts, including some being mobilized by the Arms Control Association, and a cross-section of U.S. lawmakers, especially Democrats, considered nonproliferation “hawks."

Opponents of the deal are reportedly trying to make the relevant legislation conditional upon India limiting the size of its atomic arsenal by agreeing to freeze the production of nuclear-weapons fuel (fissile material) unilaterally, or through regional arrangements involving China and Pakistan.

The Bush administration has been trying hard to keep the “markup” drafts of the House and Senate Committees strictly within the boundaries of the understandings already reached with India in July 2005 and on March 2.

Many legislators, however, have been pressing for language that stresses traditional U.S. concerns about proliferation and strong support for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which India has not signed. Some are laying down other criteria too, such as India’s backing for a fissile materials cutoff treaty (FMCT), now before the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

However, none of these additional or extraneous clauses is of an operative, binding, or deal-breaking character. While their language may not be palatable to India, it will probably accept it so long as it does not impose an additional constraint upon it. If further amendments are moved, especially relating to the FMCT, the Bush administration is likely to mobilize votes to defeat them.

“The Indian government has so much to gain from the agreement going through the U.S. Congress that it should, logically, show a lot of flexibility,” says Anil Choudhury of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace in New Delhi. “Having an ineffectual, non-binding line here or there won’t make a difference.”

However, a problem might arise if the U.S. administration and Congress reach a compromise on the sections dealing with the termination of the agreement should India conduct a nuclear test or violate its safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

Currently, some furious bargaining is taking place on these issues. There is only a narrow time-window open for debating the deal and the relevant legislation. Congress’ calendar has only 15 working days in July. If it does not complete its deliberations by the first week of August, it is unlikely to do so before it moves toward dissolution and fresh elections.

A strong, indeed overwhelming, bipartisan vote in both Houses is considered a precondition for the deal to go through. A weak vote would mean that some congressmen would be reluctant to take up the entire set of bills because they are contentious and need a lot of discussion.

From the Indian government’s point of view, there is another risk, which may be linked to an effort to avert a weak vote. To reach a broad, bipartisan consensus, the administration may have to agree to certain amendments to the original text of the concerned bills.

If, in the process, the final text introduces oversight conditions or other criteria not included in the India-U.S. agreements reached so far, that will make the Indian government vulnerable to the charge that it has compromised the nation’s vital interests.

Already sensing an opportunity to corner the government, the pro-Hindu, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads the opposition, has hardened its stand against the Indo-U.S. deal. Last week, it submitted a memorandum to India’s president, saying that it opposes it in its present form and will not consider it binding upon future governments.

The Singh government must look over its shoulder. But it knows, like the pro-nuclear Indian elite, that the price of making small compromises is well worth paying for a deal that allows India to keep nuclear weapons and import civilian nuclear technology or materials, besides strengthening a “strategic partnership” with Washington, with which to jointly neutralize China and act as the U.S.’ most trusted partner in South and Southeast Asia.

However, for purely domestic consumption, the government presents the deal as a means of righting a “historical wrong," namely the denial of dual-use and sensitive technologies to India for 30 years because of its first nuclear explosion in 1974.

In reality, there has been very little denial, except in the civilian-nuclear and missile fields. Nor has India suffered significantly from sanctions. It has only suffered a modest and poorly performing nuclear power program. But now, India can substantially expand nuclear power generation and divert imported uranium to military uses, critics say.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.