U.S., India Reach Deal On Nuclear Cooperation

President Bush visits Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan.
President Bush visits Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan.
By Jim VandeHei and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 3, 2006

NEW DELHI, March 2 -- President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced Thursday an unprecedented agreement that would provide U.S. nuclear power assistance to India while allowing the country to substantially step up its nuclear weapons production.

The agreement, which marked a significant break from decades of U.S. nuclear policy, highlighted the increasingly close relationship between the world's two largest democracies and enabled both leaders to declare Bush's visit a success. But it also drew protests from some politicians in both countries.

In Washington, where the pact is subject to approval by Congress, some lawmakers said the goal of improved bilateral relations must be balanced against the need to curb nuclear proliferation. In India, a number of protests were held to oppose Bush's visit, and socialist groups warned that India should not succumb to U.S. pressure on nuclear issues.

Under the agreement, India is to separate its civilian and military nuclear programs over the next eight years in order to gain U.S. expertise and nuclear fuel to meet its rapidly rising energy needs. India's civilian facilities would be subject for the first time to permanent international inspections.

Bush and Singh praised the deal at a joint news conference, but they did not mention that it would allow India to produce vast quantities of fissile material, something the United States and the four other major nuclear powers -- China, Russia, France and Britain -- have voluntarily halted. The pact also does not require oversight of India's prototype fast-breeder reactors, which can produce significant amounts of super-grade plutonium when fully operating.

The Bush administration originally sought a plan that would have allowed India to continue producing material for six to 10 weapons each year, but the new plan would allow India enough fissile material for as many as 50 weapons a year. Experts said this would far exceed what is believed to be its current capacity.

"The nuclear options that India insisted on protecting in this deal cast serious doubt on its declared policy of seeking only a credible minimum deterrent," said Robert J. Einhorn, a former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Bush and Singh described the deal, which has been in the works since July, as an important breakthrough in U.S.-India relations, less than a decade after the two nations were estranged and bitterly divided over India's nuclear ambitions.

"What this agreement says is -- things change, times change, that leadership can make a difference," Bush said at the news conference. "I am trying to think differently, not to stay stuck in the past, and recognize that by thinking differently, particularly on nuclear power, we can achieve some important objectives."

Singh said, "We have made history today, and I thank you."

The deal must clear two large hurdles before it can take effect. Bush must overcome concerns by lawmakers in both parties that the United States is rewarding one of only three countries that refused to sign the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who chairs the International Relations subcommittee on international terrorism and nonproliferation, said he welcomed better ties with India, but not at any cost. In a statement, he said the agreement had "implications beyond U.S.-India relations" and that the "goal of curbing nuclear proliferation should be paramount." He warned that Congress would not be rushed into backing the deal.

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