As Congress considers the Bush administration's nuclear accord with India, a Senate committee Wednesday questioned a panel of experts about their views of the deal. Some expressed concern the agreement could undermine efforts to curb nuclear proliferation.
The accord, concluded during President Bush's visit to India last month, would allow India access to U.S. civilian nuclear technology in return for a pledge to open its non-military nuclear facilities to international inspections.
Critics say the lenient U.S. treatment of India, which has refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, might encourage would-be nuclear weapons states, and possibly spur a nuclear arms race in South Asia.
For the accord to become effective, the Congress has to amend the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, which currently bans nuclear sales to countries that have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Former U.S. State Department official Robert Gallucci, now dean of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the deal could seriously weaken efforts to fight proliferation.
"I do not believe we are simply eroding the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime now. We are trashing it, in my view," he said.
Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, suggested the Bush administration is more interested in forging closer commercial ties with India and its booming economy than in protecting export controls on nuclear technology. He says the deal could create a troublesome precedent.
"If the United States decides to drop controls to help one of its friends, in this case India, other supplier countries will do the same for their friends," he explained. "China will drop controls on its friend Pakistan, and Russia will drop controls on its friend Iran. There is no way to convince either China or Russia not to do that."
The administration dismisses such criticism. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier this month told the same Senate panel the agreement would strengthen non-proliferation efforts by putting a majority of India's nuclear plants under international inspections.
It is a point echoed by Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"The civilian-nuclear agreement here is important for a very critical reason, because it embodies a bargain which allows India to become part of the non-proliferation order through formal commitments to the international system," he said.
Congress remains divided over the agreement, mostly along party lines.
Republicans, like Senator George Allen of Virginia, praise the deal.
"It's actually positive in that India has now been brought into the global nuclear mainstream, and it is clearly increasing the transparency of what they are doing," he said. "There is now oversight of their civilian nuclear capabilities."
Many Democrats, including Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, remain skeptical.
"Quite frankly, this is not a treaty I would have suggested that we negotiate," said Mr. Biden.
Still, Senator Biden believes that rejecting the deal would do serious damage to the U.S. strategic relationship with the region.
Ashton Carter, co-director of the Preventive Defense Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University agrees. He says while the accord may not be perfect, renegotiating the deal would destroy it and harm U.S. relations in the region.
Instead, he says Washington should press for commitments from New Delhi.
"The United States should expect India to join it in countering any destabilizing effects that China's future rise may have on Asian security, assisting in any emergency in Pakistan, such as radicalization of its government or loss of control of its nuclear weapons, reversing traditional Indian opposition to controls on transfer of nuclear technology and especially using Delhi's diplomatic clout against potential nuclear proliferators like Iran," he said.
It is the first of several hearings the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans on the subject.