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.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who co-chairs the Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation, called the deal "a historic failure of this president to tackle the real nuclear threats that we face."
Bush and Singh must also persuade the international Nuclear Suppliers Group, an informal alliance that oversees nuclear transactions, to lift curbs on India. U.S. officials worry that Sweden and several other members might object.
R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, said in a telephone interview from New Delhi that India, unlike Iran and North Korea, earned special treatment from the United States with its commitment to democracy and international inspections. Burns was intensely involved in working out the details of the pact.
Last week, during a private meeting with a group of congressional leaders, Burns suggested it was unlikely the sides would be able to quickly bridge significant gaps on the separation plan. But a last-minute decision by Bush to accept India's demands sealed the deal.
Burns said one of the most crucial aspects of the pact is that India would subject future civilian plants to inspections. "This is a significant gain for nonproliferation purposes and it certainly is far better than the zero influence we had before the deal," he said. India, however, won the right to classify reactors as for either military or civilian use, which could limit inspections.
Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which would be in charge of the inspections, praised the deal. "It would also bring India closer as an important partner in the nonproliferation regime," he said in a statement issued from his office in Vienna.
Some nonproliferation experts, however, suggested that the deal could trigger an arms race in South Asia, one of the world's most volatile regions. India and its neighbor Pakistan, also a nuclear power, are longtime rivals.
For India, which faces dwindling supplies of indigenous uranium, the deal would allow it to import uranium to fuel its civilian program and free up its local supplies to fuel the weapons program.
"All the United States gets from a nonproliferation standpoint are a few more civilian energy production reactors under safeguards," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. "But it's meaningless, given that India's weapons production capacity will soar in the coming years."
Of India's 22 nuclear plants, 14 classified for civilian use would be subject to new and permanent international inspections under the deal. The country's eight other reactors, as well as future ones designated for military use, would be off-limits.
There had been debate within the administration about whether the deal would undercut U.S. efforts to confront Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs. There were also concerns about how the agreement would be accepted in Pakistan, an ally in the U.S. campaign against al-Qaeda. On Thursday, an apparent suicide bombing in Karachi killed a U.S. diplomat and several Pakistanis, underscoring the persistence of regional terrorism.
But supporters said the pact was an important part of a White House strategy to accelerate New Delhi's rise as a global power and as a regional counterweight to China.
Bush, who arrived in India late Wednesday, was greeted Thursday by various branches of the Indian military, including cavalry on horseback, at a sandstone government palace. After Bush reviewed the troops, he told reporters, "I have been received in many capitals around the world, but I have never seen a reception as well-organized or as grand."
Bush and first lady Laura Bush paid tribute to India's independence leader, Mohandas K. Gandhi, tossing flower petals at the site where he was cremated in 1948. The president, who is known for short trips with scant sightseeing time, was teased at lunch by Singh for claiming that his scheduler would not let him visit the Taj Mahal.
In a lunchtime toast, Singh told Laura Bush: "I'm truly sorry that the president is not taking you to Taj Mahal this time. I hope he will be more chivalrous the next time you are here." Bush laughed and promised he would visit the 350-year-old wonder next time. Bush also met with religious leaders.
Bush and Singh also made progress on cementing closer economic ties, including an informal commitment to try to double bilateral trade every three years. But the nuclear deal dominated the day. Indian television provided hours of coverage, with commentators talking about a new era of U.S.-India relations.
Security in New Delhi was heavy as socialist and communist politicians led thousands of people in protesting Bush's visit and held a rally outside Parliament that disrupted all activity within.
"If the government succumbs to the U.S. pressure on the nuclear deal, they have to face consequences," said Sitaram Yechury, a member of Parliament from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), according to the Press Trust of India news agency. He said the left would "protest and oppose any erosion of Indian interest."
Armed policemen stood on alert and helicopters hovered overhead during the anti-Bush protests.
"He wants to control the world, and our government is willing to support this. We are here to oppose this American neo-colonialism," said Shabeg Singh, 64, a resident of Punjab province who carried a red communist flag. Similar large protests were held in other cities, including Calcutta and Bombay, also known as Mumbai.
Linzer reported from New York. Special correspondent Muneeza Naqvi in New Delhi contributed to this report.