U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal Advances

Article excerpt

The United States and India completed negotiations July 27 on a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, edging them closer toward erasing long-standing U.S. and international nuclear trade restrictions on India. But before realizing that goal, the two governments must still win over their own lawmakers and other countries, some of which, most recently Australia, are already angling to do business with India.

President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh two years ago launched the initiative to expand U.S. and global nuclear trade with India. In broad terms, the United States pledged to help India shed its roughly three-decade status as a nuclear trade pariah. New Delhi had earned that status for carrying out a 1974 explosion of a nuclear device fashioned partially from U.S. and Canadian nuclear imports intended for peaceful purposes. In return for the promised U.S. effort, India vowed to grant greater foreign oversight to a select portion of its nuclear enterprise.

Bush officials saw overcoming the nuclear trade impediments as a means of forging closer strategic and economic ties with India. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told reporters July 27 that it was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who went to New Delhi in the spring of 2005 "with this big idea to break through three decades of separation."

Washington released Aug. 3 the text of the pact, known as a 123 agreement after the section of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 that requires such instruments. It is supposed to govern future U.S. and Indian nuclear commerce for at least 40 years once it takes effect. Burns, the lead U.S. negotiator in the talks, heralded the agreement as "perhaps the single most important initiative" ever between the two countries.

Not everybody greeted the pact enthusiastically. Some Indian parliamentarians Aug. 13 tried to shout Singh down when he briefed them on the agreement. The Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition group, contends the pact will impinge on India's nuclear weapons program, while some members of India's Communist parties, which support Singh's coalition government, allege India is kowtowing to the United States. India's parliament does not have a vote on the pact, but it could engineer procedural hurdles to slow or sink implementation of the agreement.

Meanwhile in Congress, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), an outspoken critic of the deal, derided the agreement Aug. 13 as "nuclear capitulation to India's every wish." House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) cautiously noted Aug. 3 that he would review the pact to see whether it conformed to legislation that lawmakers passed last December setting the stage for further nuclear cooperation. (See ACT, January/February 2007.) Congress must approve the 123 agreement for it to enter into force.

That critics in New Delhi and Washington allege that their governments were duped in the negotiations reflects domestic politics in each country as well as the compromise nature of the pact. In response, both governments have interpreted key and controversial aspects of the agreement to their benefit and to stifle detractors. Nevertheless, the agreement tilts more to India's initial negotiating positions than those argued by the United States.

The 123 Agreement

U.S. and Indian negotiators wrangled for more than a year on several matters in which India was seeking exceptions or privileges that went beyond most other U.S. 123 agreements with foreign governments.

Although India pledged in July 2005 to continue a nuclear testing moratorium, New Delhi opposed any explicit provision in the 123 agreement terminating cooperation if it conducts a future nuclear test. Such termination provisions are standard features of U.S. agreements with non-nuclear-weapon states. India, which has nuclear weapons, is classified as a non-nuclear-weapon state by the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. …