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US, India Nuclear Deal Poised for Approval by House of Representatives, Senate

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A civilian nuclear deal between the United States and India, the subject of controversy since proposed by President Bush in 2005, is poised for final approval in the U.S House of Representatives.  VOA's Dan Robinson reports, opponents in and outside of Congress made last minute efforts to block it, while supporters said approval could not wait until a new U.S. president takes office.

With the Bush administration pressing for action before Congress adjourns, the House debated a version of the legislation approved this past week by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The agreement was the subject of long and intense negotiations between the White House and Congress, in particular Democratic Representative Howard Berman who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

During debate on the measure late Friday, he discussed what he called a personal commitment made to him by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. "That in a change in policy, the U.S will make its highest priority at the November meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the achievement of a decision by all of the nuclear suppliers to prohibit the export of enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technology to states that are not members of the treaty on nonproliferation," he said.

President Bush had hoped to win congressional approval before India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to the White House this past week.

The president referred to it as he welcomed the Indian leader, calling the agreement one sign of a good strong strategic relationship. "This has taken a lot of work on both our parts, a lot of courage on your part.  And of course we want the agreement to satisfy you and to get it out of our Congress so we are working hard to get it passed as quickly as possible," he said.

Opponents say the agreement will undermine nonproliferation efforts and make it more difficult to dissuade other countries not to develop nuclear weapons.

"Approval of this agreement undermines our efforts to dissuade countries like Iran and North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.  By approving this agreement, all we are doing is creating incentives for other countries to withdraw from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty," said Barbara Lee, a California Democrat.

Democrat Edward Markey said it fails to meet even minimal nonproliferation conditions Congress has required, and poses unacceptable risks to U.S. security and the nuclear nonproliferation regime. "By breaking the rules for India, we are making it less likely that the rules will hold against Iran or anyone else.  Iran is looking at this deal for India and they're saying "where can I sign up?"

Since conducting its first nuclear weapons test in 1974, India has refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, something critics say should happen before India gets full access to global nuclear trade.

Supporters say the agreement recognizes what they call India's responsible handling of its nuclear program, helps nonproliferation by subjecting more than half of India's 22 reactors to monitoring, and assists India's development of a clean energy infrastructure.

"The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) will be able to inspect two thirds of India's civlian nuclear facilities, because those facilities will be under IAEA safeguards and all future civliian nuclear facilities will also be under safeguards," said New York Democrat Gary Ackerman.

Last week, opponents made last minute efforts to persuade lawmakers not to vote for the agreement.  At a briefing in the U.S. Capitol, Daryl Kimball, who heads the Arms Control Association, called it flawed.

"It does not clearly resolve the inconsistency between the 123 agreement that was initialed last August 2007 and the Henry Hyde Act which established the terms and conditions under which the U.S. can engage in nuclear trade," he said.

The description of the U.S-India accord as a 123 agreement refers to a section of the 1954 U.S. Atomic Energy Act.  The U.S. has some two dozen such 123 agreements with various countries.

Ambassador Robert Grey, a former U.S. representative to the Conference on Disarmament, urges lawmakers to take more time to review the agreement.

"This is a bad deal that we are getting into here in terms of nonproliferation.  We created the nonproliferation regime, we got it through the international community. We supported it consistently over successive administrations, both Republican and Democrat. Now we have reversed course.  We are opening a hole with this agreement with India that you could drive a truck through," he said.

A decision by the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, which sets rules for international nuclear trade, lifting a prohibition on India's access to global nuclear trade paved the way for congressional approval.

"That NSG decision represents the will of the international community to make the rules conform to the realities of India's energy situation," Republican Ed Royce.

The House of Representatives will take a final recorded vote on the U.S. - India agreement on Saturday.  If approved as expected, it would go to the U.S. Senate where supporters expect it to win bipartisan approval.

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