Rice Appeals For Nuclear Deal for India

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testifies before the House International Relations Committee hearing on the U.S.-India nuclear agreement.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testifies before the House International Relations Committee hearing on the U.S.-India nuclear agreement. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 6, 2006

In back-to-back hearings yesterday on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged lawmakers to approve a groundbreaking deal that would allow sales of civilian nuclear technology to India, winning wary expressions of support from some key lawmakers but also demands for more details and assurances that could delay approval for months.

At stake is one of President Bush's boldest foreign policy initiatives. By lifting the longtime ban on nuclear trade with India -- which secretly developed a nuclear weapon and has refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty -- Bush hopes to build a strategic partnership with India as it rises to become a global power. Bush also argues that India's investment in nuclear power will make it less reliant on coal and oil as its demand for energy soars. Opponents say rewarding India will weaken rules preventing the spread of nuclear arms.

"I know that there is a history that we are trying to overcome," Rice said. "But the time comes when you must deal with the realities and, indeed, overcome that history."

During a morning hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, two key Democrats -- Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the ranking minority member, and John F. Kerry (Mass.), the 2004 presidential nominee -- suggested they were inclined to support the agreement though they were unhappy with certain aspects. Rice faced some tougher questions in the afternoon from the House International Relations Committee, though a number of lawmakers for the first time also said they supported the overall concept.

The administration has pressed for quick changes in U.S. law to implement the agreement, in which India would be granted a special exception from laws that bar nuclear trade with countries that have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Under the agreement, India would open 14 of its 22 reactors to international inspections by 2014, with the rest reserved for military use.

Three critical elements must fall into place before the deal becomes a reality -- congressional changes to the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, a consensus agreement with a 45-nation international consortium known as the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and an agreement on the inspections between India and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

The sequencing of those events is emerging as an important factor, with the administration favoring congressional action before it seeks international approval. The Indian government has begun discussions with the IAEA, but that process is likely to take months -- and India also wants Congress to take the first step. Neither committee has set a date for approving legislation.

"What we actually are trying to do is move on several fronts together," Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran said in an interview last week. "Each is linked to the other as well, but I think the critical thing is the legislation. Nothing else is possible unless the law is changed."

Several lawmakers said they would be reluctant to change U.S. laws until they understood the scope of the inspections -- the terms of which will be unique to India.

Rice offered a compromise yesterday. She said any changes in the law would not take effect until the president certifies that he is satisfied with India's agreement with the IAEA. But some lawmakers balked at that idea, saying it would leave the matter entirely in the hands of the Bush administration.

Rice's solution would "move Congress out of the decision-making process," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.).

Alternatively, the administration could seek a waiver from current law, but that would subject the deal to annual renewal, which Rice said would make it impractical for businesses seeking to sell nuclear technology to India.

One Democratic Senate staff member said whether the changes in U.S. law or the IAEA agreement come first is important because "this is a president who has a very low stockpile of trust left." He said lawmakers are also likely to seek a number of assurances written into the legislation, including commitments that India will not divert nuclear material from civilian to military facilities, and that India will not tap U.S. technology to reprocess or convert nuclear material for weapons use.

Complicating matters, the administration has already decided it will not seek approval from the Nuclear Suppliers Group -- which sets guidelines for the export of nuclear materials -- until it wins congressional approval, administration officials said yesterday. U.S. officials briefed suppliers group representatives several weeks ago in Vienna, but the reaction was skeptical and tough, two officials said. The group -- which the United States created in response to India's first test of an atomic device in 1974 -- operates by consensus.

In yesterday's hearings, lawmakers generally lauded the idea of improving relations with India but expressed concern that the agreement might set a bad precedent for other nations seeking nuclear weapons. Rice argued that India shares common democratic values with the United States and has demonstrated it can handle nuclear power responsibly.

She asserted the Non-Proliferation Treaty had failed to halt India's nuclear weapons program, and that it would be better to gain oversight over a majority of India's nuclear facilities.

Biden argued that the treaty "succeeded in limiting the size and sophistication of India's nuclear weapons program and nuclear power program." Biden said he is "probably going to support this" because the downside of ruining relations with India by rejecting the deal is worse than accepting a problematic agreement.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company