U.S. and India Finalize Controversial Nuclear Trade Pact

By Robin Wright and Emily Wax
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 28, 2007

After two years of controversial negotiations, the United States and India yesterday announced a deal on peaceful nuclear cooperation that allows trade in nuclear reactors, technology and fuel, permits India to reprocess nuclear fuel and opens the way for the United States to become a "reliable" supplier for India's energy program.

"This is perhaps the single most important initiative that India and the United States have agreed to in the 60 years of our relationship," said R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, in announcing the deal. It is also a boost to an administration struggling with diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East, Africa, Russia and other parts of the world.

The deal could foster greater strategic cooperation between the two nations and open up markets for U.S. energy and defense industries. The so-called 123 agreement still faces significant hurdles, however, notably in Congress, which must approve the accord. Critics say the deal sets a bad example because India will win access to U.S. technology without complying with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows cooperation on nuclear energy only when countries pledge not to develop nuclear weapons.

"This deal is a complete capitulation on existing U.S. laws . . ." said Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert with the Center for American Progress. "It helps India reprocess fuel from a reactor to produce plutonium, which could be used in bombs, and it dilutes strict conditions that Congress had placed on aid should India test a nuclear weapon again. It's not exactly a green light for expanding India's nuclear weapons program, but it's at least a yellow."

The deal includes cooperation on civil nuclear research and development, allows India to reprocess nuclear fuel at a new national facility that will operate under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and approves India's right to create a strategic fuel reserve.

"Civil nuclear cooperation between the United States and India will offer enormous strategic and economic benefits to both countries, including enhanced energy security, a more environmentally friendly energy source, greater economic opportunities and more robust nonproliferation efforts," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Indian External Affairs Minister Shri Pranab Mukherjee said in a statement.

President Bush said the deal reflects the deepening partnership with India and pledged to work with Congress on ratification.

Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, refuted U.S. claims that the deal will bring India into the nuclear mainstream. "We're giving India rights and privileges not afforded other nonnuclear states, and we're not holding India to the same standards expected of a nuclear weapons state," he said.

A senior administration official familiar with negotiations conceded that the United States cannot guarantee that India will refrain from testing a nuclear weapon but said that New Delhi would pay a very high price if it did. "The whole system is stacked against testing. The American president would have the right to ask for return of any technology. That's a huge penalty to pay. India would also have to think about the reaction from the Europeans and other suppliers of nuclear technology."

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) charged that the White House has abandoned its own long-standing position. "In the past, the president has said, correctly, that reprocessing and enrichment are not necessary for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. But now he has apparently reversed course and decided to allow India to reprocess all U.S.-origin fuel." Markey, co-chairman of the House's Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation, was one of 23 members of the House who wrote the White House Wednesday warning that any deal with India could not circumvent U.S. laws.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he and several lawmakers were "disturbed" by the deal. "We have said, 'You're not going to get anything if you resume nuclear testing.' But now we're making an agreement that India will get a fuel supply even if it resumes testing."

In New Delhi, government officials have consistently said that they will not knuckle under to U.S. efforts to curtail India's nuclear arsenal. Nearly every week, newspapers run fiery editorials about the country's need to defend its national interests, often pointing toward neighboring Pakistan, also a nuclear power.

India's tough stance during negotiations reflects its growing confidence in world affairs, a contrast from the days it was among the world's poorest and most politically marginalized countries. "Let India keep its bombs," newspaper headlines have declared.

The nuclear deal was approved by India's cabinet Wednesday, but the country's biggest political parties have refused to endorse the agreement in parliament until they read the fine print, which so far has not been publicly disclosed.

"We assure everyone there is nothing to stop India from carrying out further nuclear tests," M.K. Narayanan, India's national security adviser, said on Indian television. "Our right to test did not come into this at all. And that's key."

The nuclear deal is being widely portrayed on the subcontinent as yet another step in warming relations between the United States and India, once a staunch ally of Russia during the last decades of the Cold War and an economic backwater. Before the pact can come to a vote in Congress, however, India must reach agreement with the IAEA on inspections and safeguards and win approval from the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Wax reported from New Delhi.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company