Senate Passes Nuke Deal Over Escalation Fears

While the US Senate’s approval of a controversial nuclear deal with India was hailed by the White House Thursday as a major advance in Washington’s "strategic relationship" with the South Asian giant, weapons experts warned that it dealt a serious blow to more than 30 years of US and international nonproliferation efforts.

"This is a nonproliferation disaster," said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association (ACA), who noted that it effectively exempts India from the global nonproliferation regime and will likely "promote further nuclear competition with Pakistan."

"(W)e are taking apart the basic architecture of nuclear nonproliferation that has served us for many decades," warned Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan just before the measure passed by a 86-13 margin Wednesday evening. ”We are saying to India it is okay if you produce additional nuclear weapons if we cannot see them.”

The deal, a top priority of the George W. Bush administration since it was concluded after nearly two years of negotiations in July 2007, was rushed through the House of Representatives on a 298-117 vote Saturday, so it will become law when Bush signs the legislation.

Bush had hoped to have signed it by last week, when he hosted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the White House, but the turmoil created by the three-week-old financial crisis – and frantic lobbying to push the administration’s 700-billion-dollar bailout package through Congress – put that goal out of reach. Indeed, the Senate voted on the nuclear deal minutes before it approved the latest version of the bailout.

Ratification of the nuclear deal represents a major victory for powerful business interests, particularly in the nuclear and military industries, who have been eager to penetrate a fast-growing multi-billion-dollar market, as well as for an increasingly powerful and well-financed Indian-American lobby.

With a population of well over one billion, a burgeoning middle class, and an annual economic growth rate of nearly nine percent over the past five years, the Indian market has become a major target for US exporters, which lobbied hard for the deal.

In the lead have been major US producers of nuclear plants and technology, notably General Electric (GE) and Westinghouse, a subsidiary of Toshiba, both of which hope to get a significant share of the 175 billion dollars energy-poor India expects to invest over the next 25 years on expanding the amount of electricity it generates from nuclear power.

Without the new nuclear deal approved by Congress, US companies were banned from supplying any nuclear technology to India due to Delhi’s refusal to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

US arms manufacturers, notably Boeing and Lockheed Martin, also played a key role in the lobbying effort, arguing that approval would greatly enhance their chances of winning a 10-billion-dollar contract to provide 126 new warplanes that the Indian air force put out to bid in late August.

Backed by the Pentagon, US weapons contractors have argued that a growing military relationship with India could eventually blossom into a full-fledged alliance that would be a major strategic asset for the United States in the Indian Ocean and even the western Pacific, particularly if ties between the US and China take a downward course.

With passage of the legislation, Washington will officially end a nuclear embargo on India that it first imposed in retaliation for Delhi’s explosion of a nuclear device in 1974.

After the test, Washington helped organize the international "Nuclear Suppliers Group" (NSG) that strictly regulated what nuclear technology its members could provide to "non-nuclear states" that refused to join the NPT and submitted to certain International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. India refused to do so and in 1998 conducted yet another test.

In order for the deal concluded between the US and India last year to be ratified by Congress, the 45-member NSG had to agree to largely exempt India from those terms, essentially lifting the ban on civilian nuclear trade. After a strong lobbying campaign by Washington, the NSG agreed to do so in early September.

The deal approved by Congress will specifically permit the US to sell nuclear fuel and technology to India for its civilian energy needs in exchange for Delhi’s agreement to open 14 of its civilian nuclear facilities to international inspectors for the first time.

That provision has been cited by the administration and its supporters as a major breakthrough that would contribute to India’s joining what they called the "nonproliferation mainstream."

But the deal also provides that India’s eight military reactors – that is, those which provide weapons-grade nuclear material – would remain off-limits to international inspectors.

That failure constitutes a huge loophole, according to the nonproliferation experts, who noted that, under the deal as approved by both the NSG and Congress, India could also buy nuclear fuel from foreign suppliers for its civilian nuclear plants and divert the fuel that it produces domestically to its military plants.

The deal also fails to require India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and halt the production of fissile material as all other nuclear-weapons states have pledged to do.

Critics of the deal tried to add an amendment to the legislation that would have required the US to end all nuclear cooperation with India in the event that Delhi conducted another nuclear test, but the administration insisted that such a provision was already codified in a 2006 US law and was therefore unnecessary.

In its deliberations last month, several NSG members called for a similar provision to be included in its decision to exempt India from its supply regulations, but Washington successfully turned back that effort, too.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who travels to India Friday, told lawmakers last week that Washington will make its "highest priority" at the next NSG meeting a ban on the export of enrichment and reprocessing technology to states that do not sign the NPT.

Ironically, the chief commercial beneficiaries of both the NSG’s decision and Congressional approval of the deal, according to some experts, will be French, Japanese, and Russian nuclear suppliers.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.