By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008
The Senate last night approved a historic agreement that opens up nuclear trade with India for the first time since New Delhi conducted a nuclear test three decades ago, giving the Bush administration a significant foreign policy achievement in its final months.
The bill, which passed 86 to 13, goes to President Bush for his signature, handing the chief executive a rare victory that both advocates and foes say will reverberate for decades. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who conceived of the deal, have pushed hard for it from the earliest weeks of the president's second term.
The agreement, which sparked fierce opposition from nuclear proliferation experts, acknowledges India as a de facto nuclear power, even though it has never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. India until now has been barred from worldwide nuclear trade, leaving its homegrown industry hobbled and short of uranium fuel to run its reactors. The administration said the deal would bring a substantial portion of India's nuclear industry -- though not the facilities that produce materials for weapons -- under international observation.
Supporters, moreover, argue that the deal will help India become a responsible world power and will forge ties between two large democracies that have had an antagonistic relationship. With an agreement in hand, India has said it plans to spend $14 billion on reactors and other nuclear equipment next year, though France and Russia are also expected to be key suppliers.
The ban on nuclear trade with India was a "Gordian knot" that had forever hampered U.S. relations with India, said Philip D. Zelikow, who as Rice's counselor in 2005 played a key role in developing the proposal. "The Gordian knot has been cut, and that opens the way for India to join the world's great powers, with all the responsibilities that go with it."
Zelikow called the deal "a long-term bet that the enlargement of India's role in the world is likely to be for the good."
Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, blasted the deal as a "nonproliferation disaster." India, along with Pakistan and Israel, has never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. India conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998, despite international outrage, and continues to produce fissile material. Kimball said the deal "does not bring India into the nonproliferation mainstream" because it "creates a country-specific exemption from core nonproliferation standards that the United States has spent decades to establish."
The agreement was controversial in India as well and appeared all but dead several times over the past three years. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put his governing coalition at risk this summer to finalize the deal before Bush left office. Communist parties, fearful that the agreement would impinge on India's sovereignty, bolted from the government, forcing Singh to find new partners to remain in power. Once Singh secured his coalition, the Bush administration mounted a full-court press to win final approval in Congress.
Opponents have complained bitterly that in the rush, the administration made concessions that fell short of requirements in a 2006 law that gave initial approval to the pact. "Never has something of such moment and such significance and so much importance been debated in such a short period of time and given such short shrift," Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) said yesterday.
But the agreement had the strong support of both presidential candidates, helping grease the way to victory. The House approved the bill Saturday, 298 to 117.
Last month, after heavy U.S. pressure, a 45-nation group that governs trade in nuclear equipment and materials granted a broad waiver authorizing nuclear trade with India. Rice and U.S. diplomats had to overcome intense skepticism from a key group of countries that are part of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, any of which could have blocked the deal.
The waiver was a tough sell because after India's 1974 test, the United States had pushed to create the suppliers group to close loopholes that had allowed India to advance its weapons program through supposedly peaceful nuclear cooperation. The controls have been so effective that India's use of nuclear power has been severely limited, amounting to about 3 percent of the country's installed electricity capacity.
Then, the administration had to persuade congressional leaders to sidestep a requirement in the 2006 law that Congress be in 30 days of continuous session to consider the deal. Rice last week also won over a leading skeptic, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who agreed to drop a competing bill that would have conflicted with the Senate version. In exchange, Rice pledged that the United States in November would push the suppliers group to issue guidelines banning sales of sensitive nuclear equipment to countries that, like India, have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The change, if implemented, would undercut one of the Indian government's key rationales for seeking the deal -- that it would open the door for "full civil nuclear cooperation" with the rest of the world.
In India, Singh and his aides also have insisted that the deal would not constrain the country's right to conduct nuclear tests and would provide an uninterrupted supply of fuel to India's nuclear reactors.
In private correspondence with Congress that was made public last month, the administration said the United States would terminate nuclear trade with India if it conducted another nuclear test. But the administration refused to add such terms to the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver, and an amendment to the bill that would have made them explicit failed to pass last night. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, argued that the amendment was not necessary because U.S. laws made it clear that the deal was off if India tested again.
"There should be no doubt" because of the floor debate, Kimball said. "There will be practical consequences if India tests."