- The Washington Times - Monday, August 13, 2007

NEW DELHI (AP) India is free to test nuclear weapons under a much-touted nuclear deal with the United States, the country’s prime minister said today as lawmakers opposed to the pact noisily demanded the agreement be scrapped.

The civilian nuclear cooperation deal reverses three decades of American policy by allowing the U.S. to send nuclear fuel and technology to India, which has never signed major international nonproliferation accords and has tested atomic weapons in the past.

Since it was first announced in July 2005, the agreement has been praised as a cornerstone of an emerging partnership between India and the United States after decades on opposite sides of the Cold War divide. But it has also drawn criticism in both countries.

In India, many critics simply oppose closer ties with the United States, arguing that the pact could allow Washington to dictate foreign policy to New Delhi and undermine the country’s cherished nuclear weapons program.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh insisted that was not the case in a speech to lawmakers today. The deal, he said, is “another step in our journey to regain our due place in global councils.”

As for fears it could stymie the weapons program, which does not fall under the scope of the pact, Singh said: “This agreement does not in any way inhibit, restrict or curtail our strategic autonomy or capabilities.”

While India retained the right “to undertake future nuclear tests if it is necessary in India’s national interest,” the country nonetheless remained committed to its unilateral moratorium on tests, put in place after New Delhi detonated a weapon in 1998, he added.

As he spoke, lawmakers from the Hindu nationalist opposition and from communist parties that support Singh but oppose the deal sought to drown out the prime minister, shouting, “cancel the nuclear deal!”

Similar protests by lawmakers earlier in the day forced the house to adjourn until Singh spoke in the afternoon.

Singh’s speech follows the sealing of a technical pact, known as the 1-2-3 agreement, which details how nuclear cooperation between New Delhi and Washington is to work.

India got nearly everything it wanted in the 1-2-3 agreement, including the right to stockpile and reprocess atomic fuel.

The deal also does not contain a test ban, and some clauses have been interpreted to mean that an Indian test would not automatically scuttle the deal if the move followed tests by either Pakistan or China, India’s major rivals.

But Congress last year included a test ban when it created an exception for India to American laws that prohibit civilian nuclear cooperation with countries that have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

That law, which was needed before the technical agreement could be worked out, has been seized on by Indian opponents as evidence that the U.S. is seeking to constrain the South Asian country’s long-standing weapons program.

Although the Hindu nationalists have no chance of the defeating the deal, which does not need to be approved by Parliament, Singh’s coalition government needs the communists for its parliamentary majority.

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