WASHINGTON – The Senate Wednesday night approved a historic agreement that opens up nuclear trade with India for the first time since New Delhi conducted a nuclear test a quarter-century ago, giving the Bush administration a significant foreign policy achievement in its final months.
The bill, which passed 86 to 13, now goes to President Bush for his signature, handing the chief executive a rare victory that both advocates and foes say will reverberate for decades. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who first conceived of the deal, have pushed hard for it from the earliest weeks of the president’s second term.
The agreement, which sparked fierce opposition from nuclear proliferation experts, acknowledges India as a de facto nuclear power, even though it has never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. India until now has been barred from worldwide nuclear trade, leaving its homegrown industry hobbled and short of uranium fuel to run its reactors. The administration said the deal would bring a substantial portion of India’s nuclear industry – though not the facilities that produce materials for weapons – under international observation.
Supporters, moreover, argue that the deal will help India become a responsible world power and forge ties between two large democracies that have had an antagonistic relationship in the past. With an agreement in hand, India has said it plans to spend $14 billion on reactors and other nuclear equipment next year, though France and Russia are also expected to be key suppliers.
The ban on nuclear trade with India was a “Gordian knot” that had forever hampered U.S. relations with India, said Philip Zelikow, who as Rice’s counselor in 2005 played a key role in developing the proposal. “The Gordian knot has been cut and that opens the way for India to join the world’s great powers, with all the responsibilities that go with it.”
Zelikow called the deal “a long-term bet that the enlargement of India’s role in the world is likely to be for the good.”
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, blasted the deal as a “nonproliferation disaster.” India, along with Pakistan and Israel, has never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Kimball said the deal “does not bring India into the nonproliferation mainstream” because it “creates a country-specific exemption from core nonproliferation standards that the United States has spent decades to establish.”
The agreement was controversial in India as well, and has appeared all but dead several times over the past three years. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put his governing coalition at risk this summer in an effort to complete it before Bush left office. Communist parties, fearful that the agreement would impinge on India’s sovereignty, bolted from the government, forcing Singh to find new partners to remain in power. Once Singh secured his coalition, the Bush administration mounted a full-court press to win approval in Congress.
Opponents have complained bitterly that in the rush, the administration made concessions that fell short of requirements in a 2006 law that gave initial approval to the pact.