International Group Backs Nuclear Accord For U.S., India

By Rama Lakshmi and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 7, 2008

HYDERABAD, India, Sept. 6 -- International negotiators revoked a 34-year-old ban on nuclear trade with India on Saturday and backed a contentious nuclear energy agreement between the country and the United States.

The 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, meeting in Vienna, reached the decision after nearly three days of diplomatic wrangling and stiff resistance from some members.

"This is a forward-looking and momentous decision," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told President Bush in a phone call, according to a statement released in New Delhi. "It marks the end of India's decades-long isolation from the nuclear mainstream and of the technology denial regime."

With the decision, India becomes the only country to have access to nuclear fuel and technology despite not signing the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. India conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998, despite international disapproval, and continues to produce fissile material.

"The opening of full civil nuclear cooperation between India and the international community will be good for India and the world," Singh said.

The decision prompted dramatic headlines Saturday on Indian network broadcasts, such as "End of Nuclear Apartheid," "Nuclear Dawn" and "India Enters N-Club."

Supporters called the deal a foreign policy triumph that would position India as a strategic counter to China's rising power. The deal will open the door for American companies to build reactors in and supply fuel to India, generating business worth more than $100 billion.

The accord awaits ratification by the U.S. Congress, which is required to be in 30 days of continuous session to consider the deal. Congress adjourns at the end of the month, and many expect the matter to spill over to a new administration.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters accompanying her in North Africa that she would talk to lawmakers to find out whether it was possible to bypass the 30-day provision.

"It's been a good week for those negotiations, but we will have to see whether it's still possible with Congress," she said. "In any case, we will have left a very good package."

U.S. envoys had circulated at least three drafts, and Bush and Rice weighed in in phone calls. In the end, China expressed disapproval by not attending the final meeting.

"I think everybody took everyone else's concerns seriously, and we found a way to bridge those concerns," said Rice, a leading advocate for the deal. "This is different, and this is an exception, and so it is not surprising that there were concerns." The Irish and Austrians were among the last holdouts, while China expressed misgivings.

Some members, including Austria, Ireland and New Zealand, wanted the waiver to include a clause saying that nuclear trade with India would be cut off automatically if it resumed nuclear testing. On Friday, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee tried to allay fears by reaffirming India's commitment to a voluntary moratorium on testing.

The final document avoids any mention of testing but says the waiver is "based" on Mukherjee's assurances Friday.

The U.S. negotiators were forced to walk a tightrope between satisfying members of the suppliers group and offering what was politically palatable in India, whose nuclear weapons program is wrapped in nationalistic pride.

"It is a trap, and it prevents India from any future nuclear test. We firmly believe that India has walked into the nonproliferation trap that the U.S. has set for us," said Yashwant Sinha, a member of Parliament from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

An observer said separate statements issued by some countries, including Germany and Japan, contained specific conditions for India on nonproliferation and disarmament.

"We were hoping for far clearer and unambiguous language on nuclear testing. Instead, it is mushy. That is a grave mistake, and there are going to be far-reaching consequences," Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said in a telephone interview from Washington. "Because the negotiations were tough and the real differences not fully resolved, there will likely be serious differences . . . about the interpretations of what the guidelines allow and don't allow and what the consequences of any violation of India's nonproliferation and disarmament commitments would be."

The suppliers group did not give India access to enrichment and reprocessing technology and has refused its request to participate in decisions about guidelines. The group said, however, that India might be consulted by the chairman.

Over the past year, Singh has been the target of attacks from critics who say the deal erodes India's sovereignty. Some analysts said Saturday that his troubles are far from over.

"This deal is going to continue generating controversies. It is riven with potent possibilities of future conflicts, because everybody understands this deal differently, in India and around the world," said Brahma Chellaney, a strategic analyst with the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. "There are too many important details that have not been resolved. They have been kept hanging."

Kessler reported from Algiers.

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