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.
"It's not a strong coalition," said Michael Green, a former Bush National Security Council staff member who worked on the issue and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The nuclear pact has also encountered resistance in the United States, where many in Congress considered it a sweetheart deal for India and threatened to try to scuttle it. Critics said the agreement sets a bad example because India would win access to U.S. technology without complying with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which permits cooperation on nuclear energy only when countries pledge not to develop nuclear weapons.
U.S. experts differ on the prognosis. "I would not say the deal is dead. It's in the hospital in intensive care," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "The reason it's in intensive care is that there is a tight timeline that the U.S. and India have to keep to follow through on all the steps."
U.S. officials said India must take the steps required by early 2008, so the administration can begin moving the deal through Congress. Any setback would almost certainly trigger further delays on actions required by both governments to keep the agreement alive, Kimball said.
Others say the pact could be resurrected if Singh challenges opponents inside his coalition and in parliament. "If Singh went to the polls on this issue, he would win," Green said. "But he would have to run against members of his own coalition to do it. And there's a nervousness about having an election."
The communist alliance, which argues that the deal would erode India's sovereignty, has urged Singh not move forward on negotiations with the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the International Atomic Energy Agency. To assuage these forces, Singh set up a joint forum in September to discuss the pact and provide a platform for airing concerns.
Last week, Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee asked the communist parties to let the government talk with the IAEA, while assuring that the deal will not be final until there is political consensus in India.
But the communists rejected the formula and said they would vote out the government if it even approaches the IAEA.
"If the deal does not come through, it will be disappointing," Singh said Saturday at a summit organized by the Hindustan Times. "But in life, one has to live with certain disappointments. . . . Ours is not a one-issue government."
When asked whether Singh would call Bush to inform him of the decision, a senior Indian government official said: "I don't know if he will call. But if he does, it will be a sad conversation."
Lakshmi reported from New Delhi.