Glitch Delays Signing Of India Nuclear Pact

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 5, 2008

NEW DELHI, Oct. 4 -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with top Indian officials Saturday but was unable to sign a historic nuclear trade agreement between the two countries because of what appeared to be a bureaucratic hurdle.

Indian officials insisted that they will sign the deal only after President Bush does so in Washington.

The controversial pact, which seeks to end India's 34-year-old nuclear isolation, was approved by the U.S. House and Senate last week. Rice said that Bush would sign it "very soon" but that "there are administrative delays that need to be worked through."

"But let me be clear, the '123 agreement' is done," she said at a news conference with India's foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee. "It's a matter of signing that agreement. I don't want anyone to think we have open issues. We, in fact, don't have open issues."

But Mukherjee said that the agreement was in its "last lap" and that his government will be "in a position to sign" at a mutually convenient date only after Bush gives his approval.

Many Indians had expected Rice to sign the agreement during her visit, but an Indian foreign ministry advisory issued late Friday did not mention it. Before leaving Washington, Rice had told reporters that Bush "does not have to sign before I sign."

After Bush signs the legislation, he must certify that the agreement is consistent with U.S. obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and that the United States will work with international agencies to further restrict transfers of technology related to uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

The deal facilitates India's access to global nuclear fuel and technology even though the country has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. India conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998, which led to international sanctions, and continues to produce fissile material. The subject of nuclear testing was at the heart of political opposition to the accord in India.

Apart from procedural hiccups, a senior Indian official said his government wants Bush to make a statement that clearly addresses India's concerns about fuel supplies if it conducts a test. The official said Bush had promised an accompanying statement at the time of signing.

"We would like President Bush to sign the legislation into law first and make a statement that alleviates our fears about fuel supplies," the official said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media about the matter. "What if we sign it first here in Delhi and then President Bush signs it later and introduces a conditionality that is not acceptable to us?"

The official said Rice's assurances to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) on Wednesday about an automatic fuel supply cutoff if India conducts a nuclear test had raised fears in India. The official also said that Bush had stated that some of the commitments in the 123 agreement are "political" in nature and not legally binding.

However, many Indian officials say the Americans have unofficially assured India that even if they cut off nuclear supplies in the event of a test, they would work with "friendly countries" to ensure uninterrupted fuel supplies.

The agreement is expected to generate business worth more than $100 billion over the next two decades and tens of thousands of jobs in the United States and India. The deal also seeks to position India as a counterweight to China, which is rising as a global powerhouse.

Last month, the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group in Vienna revoked an international ban on nuclear trade with India and gave it a one-time waiver.

Last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a deal with France that would allow French companies to sell civilian nuclear technology to India.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company