Singh Defends Nuclear Deal

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

NEW DELHI, Aug. 13 -- Amid angry protests from lawmakers, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assured the nation Monday that India was free to conduct nuclear tests and that its nuclear weapons program would remain untouched under a controversial nuclear energy deal with the United States.

Singh defended the historic agreement during a speech in Parliament, even as opposition members stormed the floor of the chamber shouting, "Take back the nuclear deal!" The prime minister assured lawmakers that India's sovereignty had not been compromised and that many of the country's concerns had been addressed during earlier negotiations with the United States.

The government has never "shied away from a full discussion in Parliament on this important issue," Singh said.

Known as the "1-2-3 agreement," the nuclear deal has been bitterly opposed by parties inside and outside Singh's coalition government. Since the text of the deal was released earlier this month, it has been the source of a war of words between Singh and a bloc of coalition partners -- including Communist and other leftist parties -- that provide crucial support to the government and are suspicious of ties with the United States. The bloc has called for a renegotiation of the deal and for a constitutional amendment that would require a parliamentary nod to such international agreements in the future.

Announced in July 2005, the nuclear deal has been controversial both in the United States and in India. It has been criticized in the United States because it offers nuclear fuel and technology to a country that has not signed any nonproliferation treaties; in India, lawmakers and others see it as giving the United States undue influence over a strategic national asset.

The future of the deal is not in jeopardy because it does not require Parliament's approval. Still, Singh has reacted defiantly to the criticism, saying in an interview published Saturday in the Kolkata-based Telegraph newspaper: "It is an honorable deal, the cabinet has approved it, we cannot go back on it. I told them [lawmakers] to do whatever they want to do, if they want to withdraw support, so be it."

In his speech Monday, Singh said the deal protected India's right to reprocess spent nuclear fuel that originated in the United States. "It would also include development of a strategic reserve of nuclear fuel to guard against any disruption of supply over the lifetime of our reactors," he said.

India conducted a nuclear test in 1998 under the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which also initiated the strategic partnership dialogue with the United States. Though party members have criticized the deal, analysts say their opposition is merely tactical.

Singh ended Monday's speech on a reflective note.

"I am neither given to exaggeration nor am I known to be self-congratulatory," he said.

"I will let history judge. I will let posterity judge the value of what we have done through this agreement. It is another step in our journey to regain our due place in global councils."

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