- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 14, 2007

NEW DELHI (AP) — India is free to keep developing and testing nuclear weapons under its much-touted atomic cooperation pact with the United States, the country’s prime minister said yesterday, defending the deal in front of lawmakers who noisily demanded it be scrapped.

Indian and U.S. leaders say the deal will cement a strategic partnership between the world’s two largest democracies after decades spent on opposite sides of the Cold War divide.

Critics of the deal in both countries have seized on India’s right to push ahead with its cherished weapons program and, if needed, test atomic bombs.

U.S. critics say the deal, which covers only civilian cooperation, also could aid India’s weapons program by freeing up domestic supplies of nuclear fuel, such as uranium.

The pact reverses three decades of U.S. policy by allowing the United States to send atomic fuel and technology to India, which has never signed international nonproliferation accords and has tested atomic weapons.

Indian critics argue that the pact could result in too much U.S. influence over their country’s foreign policy and undermine its weapons program.

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

He also touted the benefits of the deal for India’s booming but energy-starved economy.

As for fears it could stymie the weapons program, Mr. Singh said, “This agreement does not in any way inhibit, restrict or curtail our strategic autonomy or capabilities.”

Although 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 Mr. Singh but oppose the deal sought to drown out the prime minister, shouting, “We don’t want to be American stooges” and “Cancel the nuclear deal.”

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

The Hindu nationalists have no chance of defeating the deal, which does not need to be approved by Parliament.

Mr. Singh gave his speech after diplomats sealed 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, including the right to stockpile and reprocess nuclear fuel, a key step in making weapons.

The deal does not contain a test ban, and some clauses strongly suggest that an Indian test would not automatically scuttle the agreement if the move followed tests by either Pakistan or China, India’s major rivals.

However, Congress last year included a test ban when it created an exception for India to U.S. laws that prohibit civilian nuclear cooperation with countries that have not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, said Sunday that he was confident the pact would get congressional approval.

On a three-day visit to India, Mr. Lieberman said he hoped the agreement would transform the U.S.-India relationship “into the most important bilateral relationship we have in the next century of our history.”

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