US agrees to landmark nuke deal with India

INDIA has welcomed US lawmakers’ backing of a landmark deal that will allow America to supply it with civilian nuclear fuel and technology.

Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon said yesterday the agreement recognised India’s unique and responsible role as a nuclear player.

Lawmakers in both US houses of congress overcame differences after just days of deliberations, and on Thursday endorsed a compromise Bill to allow US shipments of civilian nuclear fuel to nuclear-armed India.

Congress was expected to pass the measure yesterday. It seals a major foreign policy victory for the beleaguered Bush administration, ending three decades of American anti-proliferation policy and fulfilling New Delhi’s quest to be a “legitimate” nuclear power.

India developed its nuclear weapons outside the international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which it has refused to sign. But the Bill carves out an exemption in US law, allowing civilian nuclear trade with India in exchange for Indian safeguards and inspections at 14 civilian nuclear plants; eight military plants would be off-limits.

Congressional action was needed because US law bars nuclear trade with countries that have not submitted to full international inspections.

And under strong pressure from New Delhi, negotiators softened a provision that would have required US presidents to certify that India was actively cooperating in restraining Iran’s nuclear programme.

As written now, the Bill requires that the President provide Congress with an annual report detailing India’s efforts on Iran.

For President Bush and lawmakers, the deal means that, in return for giving New Delhi nuclear recognition, the US has secured a partnership with a strategically important Asian power that may serve as a crucial counter-balance to China, Pakistan and Iran.

Such views are now shared in Congress after months of behind the scenes lobbying by the White House and senior administration officials.

Mr Tom Lantos, incoming chairman of the House Committee on International Relations, and well-known for his anti-proliferation views, called the Bill a “satisfying consensus”.

He said: “We now have the opportunity to achieve a geo-strategic realignment of India with the US. This will be of immense importance to global security and economic development, while furthering our interests in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.”

Critics, however, say the plan could spark an Asian nuclear arms race. Meanwhile, several hurdles loom before civilian nuclear trade can begin, such as obtaining an exception for India from the rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an assembly of nations which export nuclear material; and India negotiating a safeguard agreement with the United Nations nuclear watchdog.

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