India's Outstretched Hand

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

UNTIL RECENTLY, it seemed that an ambitious Bush administration bid to restore nuclear cooperation between the United States and India might be dead, a victim of domestic Indian politics. Anti-American communist parties that support Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's centrist government were blocking the deal. But Mr. Singh took a bold risk to salvage the pact, trading communist support for that of a smaller regional party in hopes of assembling a new majority. Yesterday the gamble paid off, as Mr. Singh's government survived a parliamentary no-confidence vote. Now, the question is whether the pact can survive the American political process.

There isn't much time; under U.S. law, Congress must be in session continuously for 30 days to consider the deal. Before that clock can start, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group must give India a green light. While those approvals are likely, they won't happen instantaneously. And because of the long August recess, there may not be more than 30 "legislative days" left before Congress adjourns on Sept. 26. The deal raises many legitimate questions. But, on balance, it is in the United States' interest, and Congress should find the time to say yes -- in a lame-duck session after the November election, if necessary.

U.S. nuclear cooperation with India ceased when India, which had refused to sign the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, exploded a nuclear "device" in 1974. The sanctions were intended to show India, and the world, that there was a price to be paid for flouting the treaty. Times change, though, and the Bush administration's logic is that the benefits of a "strategic partnership" with India outweigh the risks of waiving the old rules. If booming India uses more nuclear energy, it will emit less in greenhouse gases. Unlike Pakistan, India has developed its nuclear arsenal without leaking materials or know-how to others. Perhaps the fact that India is a democracy that shares not only values but interests -- checking China, fighting Islamist terrorism -- with the United States matters more than its signature on a treaty. It's a bet worth making, especially since the agreement creates more international supervision of India's nuclear fuel cycle than there would be without it.

To be sure, it is a risk. The deal weakens the U.S. threat to cut off uranium if India conducts another nuclear test. India's economic ties and military-to-military contacts with Iran are worrisome, as is its stubborn habit of taking "nonaligned" stances against U.S. interests. But the fact that Mr. Singh successfully ditched the communists for the sake of closer ties with Washington is a hopeful sign that the agreement is already inducing moderation. At this point, if Congress rejects the deal, the likeliest outcome -- in addition to much ill will in New Delhi -- is that India, freshly approved as a customer for technology and fuel by the IAEA and the Suppliers Group, will simply buy its planned 25,000 megawatts of nuclear capacity from France or Russia. After much delay, Mr. Singh has done his part; now it's Congress's turn.

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