- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

The civil nuclear deal with India — the centerpiece of stronger U.S.-India relations that President Bush has worked to establish with India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — received a boost in Congress at the end of June when the House International Relations Committee voted 37-5 in favor of legislation that would permit the United States to sell nuclear material to India. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee followed two days later with a 16-3 vote in favor of companion legislation. The strong support bodes well for the important initiative, which would allow the United States to sell India the material necessary to construct civilian nuclear power plants, and Congress should make this legislation a priority.

Moving away from its Cold War policy of nonalignment, India has attained increasing prominence among world powers. In this new role, India is shaking off an outdated geopolitical model — proving that it is not a country stuck between the Middle East and East Asia, but rather a player with significant importance to both regions. The United States and India share more than values. The two countries are both deeply involved in the struggle against terrorism — a threat that was tragically emphasized by the bombings of commuter trains in Bombay last week. And as India continues on the course that has made it one of the world’s fastest-growing economies of the past two decades, increased trade will bring it even closer to the United States.

One potential wedge that may come between the two countries is the competition for energy resources. India’s appetite for energy will mirror its dramatic economic growth, which is, in and of itself, a compelling reason for Congress to prioritize the deal. As Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar noted at a hearing in April, “energy cooperation between the United States and India is particularly important. India’s energy needs are expected to double by 2025… The United States’ own energy problems will be exacerbated if we do not forge energy partnerships with India.” A greater supply of nuclear power would also leave India less reliant on, and less inclined to enter into, billion-dollar energy deals with Iran.

India is has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); neither has it signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, although it has pledged not to test nuclear weapons. Superficially, these may seem like proliferation concerns, and reasons not to agree to a deal that will strike some as rewarding India. This initiative, however, does not reward noncompliance; it merely recognizes that India’s nuclear program has, since 1974, developed in isolation, and it seeks to correct that situation by bringing India’s program into the mainstream without relying on international agreements that India would not likely accept.

India’s nonproliferation record is stellar, especially in comparison with neighboring Pakistan, and the nuclear deal would, as Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said while visiting India in March, “try to bring India into compliance actively, with the major international agreements that govern the disposition of nuclear materials… and nuclear energy.” Mohammed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has noted that the provisions of the nuclear deal, such as permanent safeguards and international inspection of a majority of the nuclear power plants, will bring India more in line with the NPT.

The benefit that passing the nuclear deal with India would bring to the relationship, while substantial, does not overshadow the damage that would be done if this deal ends in a very public rejection. Congress should recognize both the merits of this deal and the setback that could come from not passing it.

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