Nuclear Deal With India May Be Near Collapse

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By Robin Wright and Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A controversial nuclear deal between the United States and India appears close to collapse after the Indian prime minister told President Bush yesterday that "certain difficulties" will prevent India from moving forward on the pact for the foreseeable future.

The main obstacle does not involve the specific terms of the agreement but rather India's internal politics, including fears from leftist parties that India is moving too close to the United States, according to officials and experts familiar with the deal. Besieged over the past two months by growing opposition to nuclear energy cooperation with the United States, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh indicated over the weekend that he would rather save his coalition government than the nuclear pact.

"What we have done with the U.S., it is an honorable deal, it is good for India, and it is good for the world," Singh said Saturday. "But we are in the realm of politics, and within our coalition, there are differing perceptions."

Neither government appeared eager to announce the setback to what had been billed as one of the Bush administration's biggest foreign policy achievements. India's only official pronouncement was tucked at the bottom of a seven-paragraph news release on the Indian Embassy Web site outlining a telephone conversation Monday between Singh and Bush.

"The Prime Minister also explained to President Bush that certain difficulties have arisen with respect to the operationalisation of the India-U.S. civil nuclear cooperation agreement," said the release, which focused largely on talks between the two leaders on trade issues and Burma.

The White House, for its part, did not announce that the conversation took place until asked about the Indian Embassy statement -- and then confirmed it in language almost identical to the Indian press release.

The reluctance to admit that the deal is faltering contrasts with the fanfare when it was announced in 2005. R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, heralded the pact just three months ago as "perhaps the single most important initiative that India and the United States have agreed to in the 60 years of our relationship."

U.S. officials acknowledged deep disappointment with the abrupt decision, which they described as unexpected. Burns and other senior administration officials scrambled over the weekend to try to revive the deal. Officials said many Indian officials still want the pact to move forward.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters yesterday that the administration still believes the deal is "a good one for the United States, for India and for the broader efforts at nonproliferation."

The agreement lays out a framework for peaceful nuclear cooperation that would eventually allow trade in nuclear reactors, technology and fuel between the two nations. It permits India to reprocess nuclear fuel and opens the way for the United States to become a "reliable" supplier for India's energy program.

"The administration sees India as part of its legacy and is loathe to see [the deal] go down the drain," said Robert Einhorn, a former Clinton administration nonproliferation official who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I would guess they want to low-key this in the hope that it's only a temporary setback. Probably the White House fears that giving it publicity will make it more difficult to get back on track later."

Opponents of the pact in India include an alliance of communist parties that forms a minority bloc in Singh's coalition government and says the agreement brings India too close to the United States. The deal has also drawn fire from the country's largest opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which initially supported it.

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