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US Officials Seek Congressional Support For Nuclear Deal with India

Bush administration officials appeared before a Senate panel Wednesday to promote a plan to share civilian nuclear technology with India. Some lawmakers are skeptical about the deal.

The agreement reached last July by President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cannot go into effect until Congress amends U.S. laws forbidding cooperation with countries, including India, that are not in compliance with key international nonproliferation treaties.

At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Republican chairman, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, sounded skeptical about India abiding by its commitments under the deal.

"New Delhi in 1974 violated bilateral pledges it made to Washington not to use U.S.-supplied nuclear materials for weapons purposes. More recently, Indian scientists have faced U.S. sanctions for providing nuclear information to Iran. India's nuclear record with the international community also has been unsatisfying. It has not acknowledged or placed under effective international safeguards all of its facilities involved in nuclear work, and its nuclear tests in 1998 triggered widespread condemnation and international sanctions," he said.

The top Democrat on the committee, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, called the deal a gamble: "Both countries have to ensure that closer relations do not lead to further nuclear proliferation," he said.

Critics fear the U.S. - India agreement could undermine the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and allow rogue nations to build nuclear weapons programs with imported nuclear technology. India never signed the treaty.

But Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Nicholas Burns, told the committee the deal would benefit nonproliferation efforts:

"We concluded we had a better chance to have India meet international standards if we engaged it, rather than isolated it. We believe that the July 18 agreement advances our strategic partnership and is a net gain for nonproliferation and we do not plan to offer such cooperation to any other country," he said.

Some lawmakers are skeptical about India's assurances that it will separate its civilian and military nuclear programs, a requirement under the agreement.

Undersecretary Burns acknowledged the concerns, and said the administration would not ask for congressional action until there is evidence India is moving forward on the issue:

"Our administration believes it is better to wait before we ask congress to consider any required adjustments in law until India is further along in taking these necessary steps to fulfill our agreement. It may be, although it is hard to predict, that the Indians will not be ready, they will not have taken all these steps until the first part of 2006, it could be February, or March or April," he said.

Some lawmakers have suggested that congress condition approval of the agreement on additional steps by India, such as implementing a moratorium on fissile material production, ratifying the comprehensive test ban treaty, and joining the N-P-T as a non-nuclear weapons state.

The Bush administration opposes such conditions. "Based on our interaction with the Indian government, we believe that such additional conditions would likely prove to be deal breakers," said Robert Joseph, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.

Undersecretary Joseph said the administration believes it is better to lock in the agreement, as he put it, and then seek further progress in continuing nonproliferation dialogue with India.