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Former US Ambassador Hails End of India's Nuclear Isolation

A veteran American figure in the U.S.-India relationship is predicting the civil nuclear agreement between the two countries will quickly open the door to closer trade ties, but he warns that talk of a strategic alliance is premature. VOA correspondent Steve Herman reports from New Delhi.

Frank Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to India, told business leaders and diplomats here Friday he expects a quick, sharp debate in Congress on the civil nuclear deal between Washington and New Delhi.

He said U.S. lawmakers are anxious to settle business so they can campaign for re-election. He said they also face a deadline to deal with the issue before Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits the White House in less than two weeks.

"So we only have days, not weeks or months which I would have obviously preferred," Wisner said.

President Bush on Thursday sent the text of the proposed agreement to Congress, calling it a priority for his administration.

Appearing with the veteran U.S. diplomat, a long-time leader of the Confederation of Indian Industry, Tarun Das, said his compatriots should realize the significance of what Mr. Bush has done for India.

"Yesterday's action by the president of the United States, I think, is amazing and quite unprecedented. We need to recognize that," Das said.

The agreement gives India access to American technology and atomic materials. India, however, must open some of its nuclear facilities to international inspection.

Former ambassador Wisner says while the deal will expand India's ability to generate badly-needed atomic power, in no way will the United States support India's controversial nuclear weapons program.

"We never said we would provide technology that would contribute to weapons development," Wisner noted. "That kind of technology was off the table. Where we thought we could make a difference where you needed us was to help get doors open and provide trade that would develop a nuclear power industry. Well, darn it, that's what exactly we intend to do."

Anger in Washington and elsewhere about India's atomic weapons tests in 1974 and 1998 compelled the international community to isolate the country from civil nuclear trade for many years.

The multinational Nuclear Suppliers Group, which governs international nuclear material commerce, ended the 34-year embargo on India last week, following pressure from Washington.

Wisner, now vice chairman of the financial services conglomerate American International Group, says the United States and India were at "real loggerheads" amid sanctions, threats and defiance when he was ambassador in the mid-1990s.

But Wisner says even with the United States helping to clear the way for India to enter into global civil nuclear trade - despite it not signing international non-proliferation agreements - it is premature to refer to New Delhi as Washington's "natural ally" or "strategic partner."

"I think what we really want to do is fix our minds on the fact that building this relationship is going to take 10, 15 years and the accomplishment of real tasks," he said. "And then we can sit back and have the luxury of talking about natural alliances."

Many Indians, especially those on the political left, oppose closer U.S-India ties for their traditionally non-aligned nation.

Prime Minister Singh has insisted that the nuclear agreement with the United States does not infringe on India's sovereignty. Some in the leading opposition party, the BJP, have said they will push for re-negotiation of the pact if they return to power. They believe Washington would stop supplying India with atomic fuel and technology for its power plants if India were to conduct another nuclear weapons test.