By JAMES STERNGOLD
San Francisco Chronicle
February 27, 2006
Perhaps the most important - and controversial - part of the president's trip is an effort to conclude a groundbreaking agreement that would, for the first time, permit U.S. companies to sell civilian nuclear power reactors and technology to India, whose booming economy is starved for energy.
Such sales have been regarded as a virtual taboo because of India's refusal in the past to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and place its reactors under international monitoring.
There is considerable uncertainty that Congress will agree to such an arrangement, and there are already signs that the deal may be in trouble in Washington because of concerns it might weaken controls on trade in technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons.
There is also considerable resistance among some Indian politicians and officials to some of the conditions being imposed as part of the deal.
Despite two days of intense negotiations last week, the United States and India failed to agree on the all-important issue of separating India's civilian and military nuclear programs. Any deal is premised on India accepting the international monitoring of its civilian nuclear facilities, while its military sites would be exempt. But if India does not allow a sufficient number of its facilities to be opened to inspection - a way of guaranteeing that it is not engaging in illicit trade or rapidly expanding its weapons stockpile - Congress is likely to resist.
"It's important to have a good agreement that works for the Indians, works for the United States, will be acceptable to our Congress and to the Nuclear Suppliers Group" of nations that export nuclear material, national security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters in Washington.
The talks are part of what could prove a major shift in U.S.-India relations, which have long been wary.
Last March, during a visit to New Delhi, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it was U.S. policy to assist India in becoming a "world power." A nuclear deal would not only give India access to sources of clean energy that it needs to sustain its economic expansion, it would also allow American companies, and companies from other Western countries, to market highly lucrative commercial power reactors and other technology to India.
The problem is that India has never signed the NPT, the key international tool for preventing the spread of weapons technology.
In the grand bargain enshrined in the 1970 treaty, signatory countries, including Iran, are allowed to have access to civilian nuclear technology, but they must permit international monitoring of their facilities and swear off nuclear weapons programs. India developed a nuclear stockpile through a covert program, and refuses to give up its estimated 40 to 50 warheads, so it has remained outside the system.
Under the treaty, signatory countries are forbidden from selling nuclear technology to non-signatory countries such as India, Pakistan and Israel, which built and maintain stockpiles of nuclear bombs.
India, which has long insisted it is a responsible nuclear power, wants the United States to make an exception in its case.
For that to happen, Congress would have to change the law, but some lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, have expressed concern about weakening the nonproliferation system, and they want to prevent any possibility that India might use the deal to expand its weapons arsenal.
"Everybody would love to be supportive of India for a number of reasons," said a congressional staffer who has followed the issue. "This could be a real breakthrough in our relationship. But the unprecedented change in the nonproliferation system has brought everybody up short. They feel it's a high price to pay."
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has promised close scrutiny of the deal when it comes before his committee.
Some in Congress have insisted that the Bush administration not only pressure India to place as many of its nuclear facilities as possible under international safeguards, but have demanded that India also agree to ban any further nuclear testing and to stop producing weapons-grade fuel.
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, expressed qualified support for the India deal, but insisted that it should "not undermine our nonproliferation policy."
"Congress will carefully examine the final agreement to assure ourselves and our international partners that this initiative supports our shared political and security objectives," he said.
Administration officials have said the overall shift in America's relationship with India would bring so many benefits that altering nonproliferation restrictions on India would be well worth it. In addition to the benefits of an alliance with the booming South Asian democracy, officials have said the deal would help make India a regional counterbalance to China, and it would also ensure Indian support for Western efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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