Senate Backs White House Plan for India Nuclear Deal

By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2006

The Bush administration won overwhelming Senate support yesterday for its plan to create a broad strategic partnership with India that reverses decades of U.S. nonproliferation policies and requires changes in laws aimed at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.

The Senate voted 85 to 12 in favor of legislation that would carve out an India-specific exception to laws that forbid transfers of nuclear technology to countries such as India that have not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Senate passage brings the administration a step closer to completing its deal with India.

Advocates of the plan, including many Democrats with close ties to the India lobby, see it as a way to cement ties with a rapidly modernizing, friendly democracy whose economic and military strength could one day rival China's.

Although the effort has garnered little attention outside Washington, it has the potential to radically alter U.S. foreign policy for decades. Bush administration officials say they believe it will accelerate India's rise as a regional counterweight to China and provide the United States with a new foothold in Asia.

R. Nicholas Burns, the administration's top negotiator on the India deal, welcomed the bipartisan support late yesterday and called the agreement "one of the most important foreign policy initiatives of the last several years."

But the plan, still being negotiated by U.S. and Indian officials, has fierce opponents among arms control experts, some of whom argue that it will weaken efforts to rein in countries such as Iran and North Korea while potentially triggering an Asian arms race.

"The benefits of the deal have been overstated, while the downsides are significant," said Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association. "The administration and Congress are gambling that the downsides will not occur."

Under the deal, India would receive badly needed nuclear fuel and technology to meet the energy needs of its 1.1 billion citizens. But that arrangement would also allow the New Delhi government to divert its existing nuclear infrastructure to produce additional weapons.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who had fought passage of a similar bill in the House in July, lamented that the deal "will allow India to increase its annual bomb-production capacity from seven to over 40 bombs a year."

But Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) called the plan "a lasting incentive" for India not to test nuclear weapons and "to cooperate closely with the United States in stopping proliferation." The deal does not prevent India from testing, however, and nowhere does it obligate India to adopt U.S. nonproliferation goals.

India's close relationship with Iran, meanwhile, has irked some on Capitol Hill. Iran's foreign minister met yesterday in New Delhi with India's prime minister. The countries have close military, economic and political ties and are in discussions over a proposed gas pipeline from Iran to India.

In January, congressional leaders requested a secret intelligence assessment of India's nuclear program, the potential effects of the deal and New Delhi's ties to Tehran. Intelligence officials said they provided a paper in April, but staff members on Capitol Hill said it did not address Iran or any aspect of the deal.

Two senators, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), offered amendments to the bill yesterday that would have forced India to choose between the United States and Iran when it comes to military cooperation, terrorism and nuclear issues. Both were defeated after India said it would consider them deal-breakers.

The House and Senate will sort out minor differences in their bills before bringing legislation to the full Congress for a vote. The deal with India, however, is far from complete.

Negotiators need to finish talks that have been mired in disagreement. India must separate its military and civilian nuclear infrastructure and reach a separate agreement with U.N. inspectors. The deal also needs approval from an international consortium that controls nuclear exports. Officials say it could be a year before the deal is brought back to Congress for a final vote.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company