The worldwide body that regulates the sale of nuclear fuel and technology approved a landmark deal on Saturday to allow India to engage in nuclear trade for the first time in three decades, after a pressure campaign by the Bush administration and despite concerns about setting off an arms race in Asia.
Only one hurdle now remains for the deal: final approval by the United States Congress. But passage is likely to be difficult, considering both political opposition and dwindling time in the Congressional calendar before November’s elections.
If the agreement ultimately goes through, it would stand as a symbol of the deepening strategic ties between the United States and India, seen as a potential balancing power to a rising China. It would also be enormously lucrative for sellers of nuclear fuel and technology all over the world; India plans to import at least eight nuclear reactors by 2012, according to projections by the State Department.
State Department officials were ecstatic about the vote Saturday by the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, or N.S.G. “I don’t think a lot of people thought we’d be able to get this through the N.S.G. this weekend,” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in Algiers.
Both President Bush and the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, have cast the nuclear agreement as a legacy issue. The White House said the two leaders spoke to each other on Saturday.
Indian and American proponents of the deal hailed Saturday’s agreement as a historic opportunity to meet India’s growing energy demands and allow New Delhi to come into what Mr. Singh called “the nuclear mainstream.” Its critics warned that such a sweeping exemption for India, which has developed an atomic weapons program but steadfastly refused to sign the global nonproliferation treaty, sets a dangerous precedent.
Several members of the N.S.G. had in recent days proposed several amendments that would terminate nuclear trade and the sale of secret technologies if India conducts more nuclear tests. The Bush administration had pressed N.S.G. members not to impose such restrictions on India. The exact terms of the agreement were unclear on Saturday night.
Because any agreement requires consensus among the member nations, administration officials had to lean hard on the holdouts, principally Austria, China, and New Zealand.
Ms. Rice made at least two dozen calls over the last two days to push allies to allow for the India-specific waiver, as she traveled across North Africa, according to administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. They said she also called the Chinese foreign minister early Saturday morning to urge Beijing not to block the deal.
After three days of fierce debates in Vienna, where they met, the N.S.G. approved the accord. It allows India to buy nuclear fuel and technology for its civilian nuclear power program. India has already agreed to separate civilian reactors from those used in its strategic nuclear weapons program. It has also agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the reactors used in its energy program.
Although a senior State Department official said the White House has only two weeks to get the deal through Congress, Ms. Rice told reporters traveling with her that she had been talking to Congressional leaders and was hopeful it could be done.
Representative Howard L. Berman, a California Democrat who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview on Saturday that he would not consider any expedited timetable for considering the agreement until the Bush administration provides him with more information about the negotiations in Vienna.
Mr. Berman said that he wants to check that the Bush administration did not cut any side deals with N.S.G. member countries to get their votes. He wants to ensure, for instance, that the United States did not say any countries could sell nuclear technology to India that the United States is currently prohibited from selling.
Ultimately, he said, the burden was on the White House to convince Congress that the nuclear pact needed to be authorized in a “rushed” fashion.
Indian advocates for the deal were elated.
“Most countries have realized the logic of the United States in arguing that it is better to have India inside the tent instead of treating India as an outcast,” said Lalit Mansingh, a retired Indian ambassador to the United States.
Indians were celebrating Saturday night: small groups of revelers set off fireworks in honor of the deal in the nation’s capital, and groups gathered to dance outside the headquarters of Mr. Singh’s Congress Party.
A deal is considered important for India’s continued economic growth and increased demand for electricity. Since it conducted its first nuclear test decades ago, India has not been able to buy nuclear fuel or technology on the world market.
The country is now running short of uranium for existing nuclear reactors because it does not have enough of a domestic supply to feed them. India’s leaders also want to substantially grow the civilian power program.
But even in India, the deal has been dogged by intense political opposition, so much so that Mr. Singh’s opponents sought to bring down his government this year over this issue.
They have said the agreement would impinge on India’s right to advance its strategic weapons program. The United States has said that it could stop supplying nuclear fuel if India conducts a weapons test.
On Saturday, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party assailed the deal as a “nonproliferation trap.” In defense, Mr. Singh’s government has said India can do what it wants with its weapons program, and that if India tests another weapon, the United States can decide whether it will cut off nuclear trade. In practical terms, officials and analysts in both countries acknowledge that the United States reaction would depend, in large part, on how and when India tests. If it came on the heels of tests by Pakistan or China, New Delhi hopes that American officials might be persuaded to feel that India was facing a threat and needed to move its nuclear program forward.
Under current law, Congress must be in session a full 30 days to consider the nuclear deal. Congressional officials said Saturday that the White House might be able to work with lawmakers to circumvent this provision and expedite a vote.
A potentially more significant hurdle for the White House is that a Democratic Congress might not want to give President Bush a significant victory during his waning days in office. White House officials have long hoped that the deal could be part of Mr. Bush’s foreign policy legacy.
Lawmakers in late 2006 voted overwhelmingly to support the White House’s plan to sell the civilian reactors to India, but that was when Congress was still in Republican hands. Congress granted provisional approval at that time and was required to vote again after a nod from the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and a vocal opponent of the deal, said in a statement on Saturday that with only a few weeks left in the Congressional session, “It is highly questionable whether such a complex and controversial agreement can be thoroughly examined before the House and Senate adjourn for the elections.”
Still, even some opponents of the deal acknowledged that should the White House manage to force a vote in September, the pact was likely to be approved.
Representative Ellen O. Tauscher, a California Democrat, said by telephone on Saturday that the nuclear agreement was a “very, very bad deal,” but said that since the 2006 vote indicated that a large part of the House of Representatives was inclined to approve the pact and that it would be difficult to scuttle the deal at this point.
In the end, if the deal is approved, India will be forced to decide what kind of nuclear program it aspires to develop. If it wants to be a major nuclear power in the world — significantly increasing the country’s arsenal and improving its sophistication — India has to conduct tests sooner rather than later, and face the potential consequences, said Stephen Cohen, a South Asia specialist at Brookings Institution.
Or it could actively negotiate with its rivals, Pakistan and China, to negotiate what he called a “nuclear restraint agreement.”
“This is the time for the Indian government to declare what kind of nuke capability they will have and negotiate with the other Asian powers to avoid a nuclear arms race,” Mr. Cohen said.
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