The Bush administration, in a major concession aimed at saving a civilian nuclear-energy deal with India, has agreed to help New Delhi secure fuel for its reactors, even if it conducts another atomic test, diplomats and knowledgeable nonproliferation specialists said yesterday.
The concession, made in closed-door talks with visiting Indian officials last week, was warmly welcomed at a joint meeting of the Cabinet committees on security and political affairs in New Delhi, according to news reports.
"They approved the agreement," Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee was quoted as saying. "All concerns of India have been reflected and have been adequately addressed."
The nuclear agreement, which opens the door to U.S.-Indian cooperation on peaceful nuclear energy for the first time since India conducted its first atomic test in 1974, had previously called for cooperation to be cut off if India conducted another test. That provision was enshrined in law last year by Congress, which must still sign off on the amended deal.
Officials from both countries, while refusing to speak for attribution, acknowledged that the U.S. concessions are unusual and are certain to renew criticism of the deal from nonproliferation advocates and members of Congress, who were just learning about the new terms yesterday.
Twenty-three members of the House of Representatives warned President Bush in a letter yesterday that "any inconsistencies" between the administration's proposal and U.S. laws "would put final congressional approval of the deal in doubt."
"If the [agreement] has been intentionally negotiated to sidestep or bypass the law and the will of Congress, final approval for this deal will be jeopardized," said Rep. Edward J. Markey, co-chairman of the House Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation.
Sources familiar with the new proposal, negotiated under pressure from India, which does not want its hands tied in its nuclear rivalry with neighboring Pakistan, said the United States offered to "consider the circumstances" before cutting off cooperation after any nuclear test.
Moreover, Washington offered to help New Delhi secure alternative sources of nuclear fuel in the event of a U.S. cutoff.
"The United States would join India in seeking a fuel-supply agreement with the IAEA," said one source with knowledge of the proposal, referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog based in Vienna, Austria.
"If there were interruption, U.S. and India will convene a group of friendly supplier countries, such as Britain and Russia, to restore the supply," he said. "We would also support Indian efforts to create a strategic reserve to supply Indian reactors over their lifetime with fuel."
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said last year's legislation "intended that the United States should not provide India with a multiyear fuel supply that could be used to carry it through the suspension of international supplies due to resumption of nuclear testing."
"In other words," he said, "the administration is saying that, if the U.S. felt compelled to cut off cooperation because India violated the agreement, we'll help others circumvent our policies to supply India with fuel."
An Indian official close to the negotiations was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying that Washington had also reversed itself by agreeing to let India reprocess spent nuclear fuel, although only at a dedicated plant that India has proposed to establish.
"This is a very significant milestone, but it is not the end of the road," the official said. "We are still keeping our fingers crossed."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to discuss details of the latest proposal, but he said the administration won't do anything that is not in the U.S. national interest. Another official defended the deal, saying it is worthwhile if India subjects more of its nuclear program to IAEA safeguards.
But Mr. Kimball, noting that such safeguards exist only at six Indian facilities, said the deal would not commit India to "any nonproliferation action it wasn't already committed to."
"The administration has given up on the argument that the deal would bring India into the nonproliferation mainstream," he said.
Christopher Griffin, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the administration's concessions are not a "real surprise, because its interest is not as much in nonproliferation as in removing the barrier to strategic cooperation with India on a broader agenda."