Ashish Kumar Sen writes from Washington
President George W. Bush’s administration is confident of getting the approval of the US Congress for a civilian nuclear agreement with India, a senior US official said on Friday.
On Capitol Hill, however, members of the Congress reacted cautiously as the US and India released the text of the 123 Agreement, which will govern this cooperation.
In a briefing to a handful of south Asian journalists at the state department, undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns said he hoped India would now negotiate “in the quickest time” a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The next step is to get approval of the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group, which is expected to meet in Vienna in the autumn. Burns said the US sees its role as India’s “sherpa” at the NSG. “We pledged to the Indian government that we would make every effort to have a clean, positive decision by the NSG,” Burns said.
While the NSG has prescheduled meetings, the United States, as a key member of the group, can call for additional meetings to deal specifically with the India issue and change in NSG policy to allow the sale of nuclear fuel to India. “We would not be averse to calling a special meeting of the NSG because we feel so strongly that this question of India is so important for the overall agreement,” Burns said.
Following this the Bush Administration will formally ask the US Congress to vote for a final time to approve the deal. Burns was optimistic the deal would strong bipartisan support.
Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos of California, chairman of the house foreign affairs committee, said he was keen to review the deal in detail. “As Congress considers it, we need to determine whether the new agreement conforms to the Henry Hyde Act, and thereby supports US foreign policy and non-proliferation goals,” Lantos said in a statement.
The committee’s Republican co-chairwoman Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, said, “Like so many of my colleagues, I have a number of concerns about this proposed agreement, among them India’s right to reprocess US-origin nuclear fuel, transfers of technology, material, and facilities that could be used to enhance India’s nuclear weapons program and enforcement of US law requiring termination of cooperation if India were to once again test a nuclear weapon.”
She noted that the proposed agreement “must also be considered in the context of the growing military, political, and commercial relationship between India and Iran at a time when responsible nations are curtailing their dealings with Iran in light of the regime’s pursuit of activities that could be used to achieve a nuclear weapons capability.”
“In the months ahead, we will be working toward resolving these concerns that are critical to our nation’s security and look forward to developing a consensus on how to proceed,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
Burns said he hoped to get the deal back to the Congress for a vote by the end of the year. He said the US decision to allow reprocessing rights for India was a “big step" and pointed out that the US doesn’t have civil nuclear agreements with many countries and certainly not reprocessing agreements with many countries in the world. “The reprocessing issue was by far the largest issue, we spent the most time on this issue,” he said.
On the so-called right of return, Burns said, “We expect and hope that the future will be one of India and the United States adhering to our commitments to each other and hope and expect that there will be no reason for a nuclear test in the future.”
Asked if India had retained its right to test a nuclear weapon, Burns said, “That is a decision for the Indian government to make. Obviously in the modern world, in the 21st century, advanced nuclear powers largely do not test nuclear weapons.
The United States is not testing nuclear weapons, Britain is not testing nuclear weapons. India retains its sovereign rights, but the United States retains its legal rights as well,” he said. That, he added, “is a good compliment to each other.”
The United States has committed to working with its allies like Britain, France and Russia to ensure uninterrupted nuclear fuel supply to India in the event that Washington cuts off its own supply.
Lisa Curtis at the heritage foundation, who served as a staff member of the senate foreign relations committee, told The Tribune there are “concerns on the Hill about the uninterrupted fuel supply assurances.”
“Most members are likely to take a wait-and-see approach and watch how India’s negotiations with the IAEA proceed as well as its efforts to obtain consensus agreement within the Nuclear Suppliers Group,” she said. "There has been a great deal of tension between the Bush Administration and the Congress on this deal for the last two years, and I don’t think that has changed. That said, most Congressional members understand why this agreement is so important for the broader US-India relationship.”
Once the Congress approves the 123 Agreement India and the US can begin nuclear trade. Reprocessing, however, cannot begin until India constructs a dedicated facility, a proposal New Delhi floated in June. Burns admitted that might take a little bit more time.
“But the critical thing is for the Indian government - as well as for us - is that we have made the decision and made the commitment and we have actually spent a lot of time thinking through how we will do it,” Burns said, adding, “I think we have surmounted the tallest mountain in these negotiations, which was how to handle the reprocessing issue. This really bedeviled the negotiations for the last six months.”
Asked if the ball is now in India’s court regarding reprocessing, he said, “It is in both of our courts. I think it is a mutual responsibility . we are partners with India. This is not an antagonistic relationship. We are friends. We have a sense that we are responsible for this agreement together; we both have to take this forward together.”