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Friday, September 12, 2008

A HISTORIC agreement to restore nuclear power cooperation between the United States and India is almost a done deal. Having faced down serious challenges from the left and right, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has secured ratification from his parliament. India and the International Atomic Energy Agency have agreed to new safeguards for Indian civilian nuclear plants. Last weekend, the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group granted New Delhi a waiver permitting it to purchase fuel and technology despite its failure to ratify the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Now all that's left is for Congress to give its approval.

There's a catch: Under U.S. law, Congress is supposed to consider the pact for 30 consecutive legislative days before voting, but lawmakers are scheduled to leave town Sept. 26. A post-election lame duck session is unlikely. Unless Congress promptly passes a law permitting an expedited vote, the India deal could be put off until the next administration, and the next Congress, with all the uncertainty that entails.

The Democratic point man on this issue in the House, International Relations Committee Chairman Howard L. Berman (Calif.), is balking. Mr. Berman, a longtime skeptic of the deal, said that he supports "cooperation on civilian nuclear energy with India" but opposes "policies that would lead to a nuclear arms race or undermine proliferation standards." He wants the Bush administration to prove that the deal is compatible with a 2006 law, the Hyde Act, which requires the United States to cut off cooperation if India tests another nuclear device.

Mr. Berman is certainly right to subject this major shift in U.S. policy to a searching inquiry. But we hope that he will ultimately find a way to help move it through Congress before Sept. 26. The agreement has already been amply debated and discussed, and, on balance, it is in America's interest. U.S. nuclear cooperation with India ceased after the latter's first nuclear test in 1974. But in today's changed global situation, the Bush administration has reasonably calculated that the benefits from a "strategic partnership" with democratic, fast-growing India outweigh the risks of ending a punitive posture. Global warming is one consideration in favor of helping India use more nuclear-generated electricity, but so are shared U.S.-Indian concerns with checking China and fighting Islamist terrorism. Yes, relieving India of the consequences of its past shunning of the nonproliferation regime might send a problematic signal, but how potent a signal is not clear. North Korea went nuclear while it was an NPT signatory, and Iran may be trying to do the same; India, a democracy, is likely to behave more responsibly, as is demonstrated by the fact that its nuclear program, unlike Pakistan's, has not been implicated in proliferation. And though the deal does not expressly require that the United States cut off nuclear cooperation if India tests another weapon, as the Hyde Act provides, it clearly permits the United States to do so, and India knows that this is not an idle threat.

For all its flaws, the agreement would create more international supervision of India's nuclear fuel cycle than there would be without it. If Congress backs out now, the only victims will be American nuclear suppliers, who would have to stand aside while French and Russian companies expand India's nuclear power system. The U.S.-India nuclear agreement enjoys the approval of the U.S. executive branch, India's government, the U.N. agency in charge of nuclear safeguards and a 45-nation international organization. It would be strange, indeed, if a Congress controlled by Democrats, who usually favor diplomacy and multilateralism, were to scuttle the deal now.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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