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Bush Signs India Nuclear Law

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

President Bush signed legislation yesterday permitting civilian nuclear cooperation with India, reversing three decades of nonproliferation policy in the interest of redefining U.S. relations with the world's largest democracy and reshaping the geopolitical balance as China asserts itself in Asia.

Bush, who has made the fight against the spread of nuclear weapons a centerpiece of his foreign policy, persuaded Congress to make an exception for India despite its not having signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Although critics warn that the deal could spark a regional arms race, Bush called it a landmark moment that finally relegates Cold War-era tensions to the past.

"The United States and India are natural partners," Bush said at a signing ceremony in the East Room attended by lawmakers, diplomats and Indian Americans. "The rivalries that once kept our nations apart are no more -- and today, America and India are united by deeply held values."

The new law marks a rare foreign policy success for Bush at a time when he has suffered enormous setbacks elsewhere on the global map. Some top advisers believe that a closer relationship with India will be one of Bush's primary legacies and could help build up a counterweight to a rising China. The administration made the India deal its top priority to push through a lame-duck Congress that otherwise passed little of consequence after the Nov. 7 elections.

The deal represents a strategic calculation by Bush that it is better to embrace India than to continue isolating it for building nuclear weapons outside international legal structures. India tested bombs in 1974 and 1998, and specialists believe it can produce enough fuel for half a dozen weapons a year, but it is not one of five official nuclear states under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the main instrument governing nuclear weapons. Neither is its archrival, Pakistan, which set off its own nuclear blasts after India's in 1998.

The law Bush signed yesterday carves out an exception to the Atomic Energy Act, which prohibits nuclear trade with countries outside the treaty. U.S. companies will now be allowed to trade in nuclear fuel and to invest in and build civilian nuclear plants in India. In exchange, India has agreed to open up its civilian nuclear facilities to international inspection.

But under the deal that Bush cut with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a March visit to New Delhi, India is designating only 14 of its 22 nuclear reactors as civilian. The other eight are considered military and will remain shielded from international scrutiny. And because the deal will allow India to import nuclear fuel for civilian use, critics estimate that it could then use its own facilities to produce enough fuel for 40 or 50 nuclear bombs per year.

"For the president to say this is good for nonproliferation suggests he's being badly advised," said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "India only agreed to put half of all its electricity-producing reactors under safeguard, and that's troubling."

Critics complained that granting an exception to India creates a dangerous precedent and undermines the administration's efforts to pressure North Korea and Iran to abandon nuclear aspirations. Like India and Pakistan, North Korea has tested a nuclear bomb outside the treaty. Israel is also believed to have nuclear weapons.

"What's good for India is good for Israel," said Henry D. Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and a former Pentagon official under President George H.W. Bush. "And once you have Israel, can Pakistan be far behind? . . . They have pretty much signaled the end to any benefit for following the rules."

Bush provoked further concern with a signing statement released hours after his ceremony that said he reserves the right to ignore certain safeguards built into the legislation. The signing statement took issue with language inserted by Congress into the law prohibiting the transfer of nuclear material to India in violation of guidelines set by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a consortium of 40 nuclear-fuel-producing nations that includes the United States.

Since "a serious question would exist as to whether the provision unconstitutionally delegated legislative power to an international body," Bush said the administration would interpret the provision "as advisory."

Some opponents have questioned India's nonproliferation record. The U.S. government sanctioned several Indian companies and scientists for supplying weapons or technology to Iran even as Washington and New Delhi were negotiating the nuclear deal. At one point this summer, the administration sanctioned two Indian firms for selling missile parts to Iran, a decision that remained secret until after a House vote on the pact.

Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said India has a strong record on nonproliferation and that the administration is confident that New Delhi shares Washington's concerns about Iran. "We don't have any doubts that India also wishes to deny Iran a nuclear weapons capability," he said.

Robert D. Blackwill, a former U.S. ambassador to India whose firm, Barbour Griffith & Rogers, now represents the New Delhi government, said the agreement pushes aside a boulder that has blocked closer ties for 30 years. "There was a specific ceiling on how far the relationship could change until that boulder was removed," he said.

The agreement still faces three final tests: India must now conclude an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency over inspections. The United States must work out a technical agreement with India on nuclear trade. And both countries must persuade the Nuclear Suppliers Group to accept the U.S.-India agreement. Burns predicted those steps could be wrapped up in six months.


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