The U.S. Senate has approved legislation that would allow civilian nuclear cooperation between the United States and India. It is a victory for President Bush, who has made congressional passage of the measure one of his top foreign policy objectives.
President Bush immediately hailed passage of the measure, saying in a written statement that the Senate acted to further strengthen the U.S. - India strategic partnership by approving legislation that will deliver energy, nonproliferation, and trade benefits to the citizens of two great democracies.
The measure establishes an India-specific exception to a U.S. law that bans nuclear trade with countries that have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The accord, reached in principle by President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July 2005, would give India access to U.S. nuclear fuel and reactors in return for a pledge to open its civilian nuclear facilities to international inspections. India's eight military plants would be excluded.
The agreement, approved on an 85 to 12 vote, is aimed at helping India meet its growing energy needs.
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, praised the deal, which has bipartisan support. "The United States national security is advanced by engaging India and by increasing the IAEA oversight of the India nuclear program," he said.
But some Democratic opponents argued the deal could hurt efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, said the agreement would allow India to build more nuclear weapons and escalate tensions in the region. "I fail to see how undermining decades of effort at nonproliferation and now providing a green light to India to produce new nuclear weapons, additional nuclear weapons, makes this a safer world. Quite the contrary: I think it is dangerous. I think this agreement is a horrible mistake," he said.
Opponents unsuccessfully tried to amend the legislation to ease proliferation concerns.
Amendments that were rejected include one that would have required a U.S. presidential certification that the civilian nuclear agreement would not contribute to India's nuclear weapons program, and another that would have required India to stop producing weapons-grade fissile material.
Supporters of the deal argued that India would not accept such conditions, and that the amendments would weaken or even kill the agreement.
Senator Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat who will become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next year, voted for the legislation, but acknowledged his fellow Democrats' concerns. He urged India not to violate the spirit of the agreement. "I hope especially that India will not use its peaceful nuclear commerce to free up domestic uranium for increased production for nuclear weapons. The U.S. - India deal does not bar India from doing that. But such a nuclear buildup, unless carried out in response to a direct threat from its nuclear-armed neighbors would be a gross abuse of the world's trust, in my view. It would sour relations between India and the United States just at a time when both countries hope to build upon a new foundation that has been laid for the past decade," he said.
There are a number of steps that have to be taken before the agreement goes into effect.
Differences between the Senate bill and a version passed by the House of Representatives will have to be reconciled before a final bill is sent to President Bush for his signature.
The pact also needs the approval of the Nuclear Suppliers Group of nations that controls global atomic trade.
In addition, the United States and India still have to negotiate technical details of an overall cooperation agreement, which then will have to be approved by the U.S. Congress.
And finally, India must negotiate a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency.