- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 29, 2007

Indian nuclear deal

I was a guest on a radio talk show soon after the Bush administration first announced it was negotiating a deal to permit the sale of nuclear power technology to India despite that country’s refusal to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its nuclear weapons tests in 1998.

The moderator asked me if I didn’t think the administration was in for a big fight in Congress over the issue. I wasn’t so sure. The issue had been around for a few days and I hadn’t heard much reaction from politicians.

Furthermore, we had done a couple of articles over the previous year about the growing clout of the Indian-American lobby, which donates generously to congressional campaigns, and I had a hunch that would help smooth the way.

Indeed, the deal worked its way through Congress with relatively little fireworks, though with a couple of hitches: The final language barred India from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel and said the United States would cut off the cooperation if India conducted another nuclear test.

That put the ball back in India’s court, and I was a little surprised by some of the tough talk filtering out of New Delhi in recent weeks, with officials there saying they could never accept the American conditions. India, after all, seemingly had much more to gain from the deal than the United States, so why were they able to make demands?

Then last weekend I began getting press releases in my e-mail from the U.S.-India Political Action Committee (USINPAC) hailing an agreement on the nuclear issue and calling it “a historic milestone” in relations between the countries.

“Universally regarded as one of the most important pacts of the 21st century, the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement lays the foundation stone for India’s energy self-reliance and opens avenues for American businesses to invest in the country’s booming economy,” the release said.

Alternate sources

OK, press releases exaggerate. But I had not seen any official announcement of an agreement nor noticed anything about it on the major wire agencies. It was not until Wednesday that some confirmation appeared in a Reuters news agency report from New Delhi.

The report said the pact, concluded the previous week, “adequately addressed” India’s concerns and had been approved by two Indian Cabinet committees.

While the terms were still secret, Reuters said the revised deal would allow India to reprocess spent fuel at a dedicated plant and called for “a complex process of consultations” before fuel supplies could be halted in the event of a new Indian N-test.

We asked State Department reporter Nicholas Kralev to look into it and the story got even more interesting. Diplomats and nonproliferation experts told him the United States had even promised to help India find an alternative source of fuel — Russia or Britain for example — in the event that U.S. supplies were cut off because of another nuclear test.

That prompted a warning from some members of Congress that the deal — which still required their approval — could be in jeopardy if it violated the spirit of the U.S. provisions approved earlier. Those quotes appeared in Mr. Kralev’s front-page story Thursday.

A day later, congressmen were telling Mr. Kralev they had received assurances that the deal didn’t really say what the Indians thought it did. Crafty State Department lawyers had found language sufficiently ambiguous that each side could interpret it as it wished, our reporter was told.

Story Continues →