- The Washington Times - Friday, July 27, 2007

The Bush administration assured Congress in a classified briefing yesterday that its nuclear deal with India does not circumvent U.S. law, although the briefers conceded that some language is deliberately vague to help both sides save face.

Some congressional officials said they were satisfied by the administration’s assurances.

But they also noted that India’s aggressive “courting” of Iran could jeopardize congressional approval of the deal, despite the significant influence of Indian-American campaign contributors in Congress.

The most recent agreement between Washington and New Delhi, negotiated last week, was deliberately written in a way that can be interpreted differently by the two sides, said congressional officials who were briefed by State Department officials but did not see a copy of the text.

“The way the Indians are reading it is not correct from the administration’s point of view,” said one congressional official who attended.

The Indians protested from the beginning legal U.S. requirements to automatically suspend nuclear cooperation if India conducted another atomic test.

To help New Delhi save face domestically, the administration agreed to consult with the Indian government before taking any action in response to a test, officials said.

The Indians presented that language as a major U.S. concession, but U.S. officials said consultations do not mean much in practice.

“So we’ll consult with them — big deal,” one official said. “That doesn’t mean we’ll just sit and not do anything if they test. You can be sure that Congress will respond to an Indian nuclear test.”

On another major issue — securing India’s nuclear fuel supply in the event of a U.S. cutoff — the interpretations also differ.

The Indians say the United States agreed to help them find alternative sources from other countries.

But U.S. officials insist the language does not commit them to do anything specific. Rather, if there is an interruption of the Indian supply because of technical or logistical difficulties, they will try to do what is appropriate, they said.

“The idea that the Indians will test, and we’ll help others circumvent our laws to send them fuel is ridiculous,” said the Capitol Hill staffer who attended yesterday’s briefing.

The administration briefers acknowledged they had agreed to allow India to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, but only at a newly built facility with safeguards involving U.S. participation.

Critics of the deal argue that U.S. law prohibits reprocessing, especially by a country such as India, which has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Regardless of whether they support the deal, congressional officials said India’s broadening relationship with Iran is a major problem.

“The Indians are foolish to think that their strengthening economic and military ties with Iran won’t have an impact on the nuclear deal,” one official said. “It could very well sink the agreement.”

Several congressional sources said the Indians were “arrogant” every time the Iran issue was raised.

“It’s not just that the Indians are not helpful in our efforts to squeeze Iran, but they are aggressively courting [Iran],” another official said, citing New Delhi’s $8 billion investment in a gas pipeline stretching from Iran to India.

In May, a bipartisan group of House members sent a letter to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warning against New Delhi’s cooperation with Tehran.

“Such cooperation raises renewed questions about the possible diversion of sensitive technology to Iran, for which Indian entities have been sanctioned in recent years, including U.S.-origin technology provided to India in the context of civilian and space cooperation,” the letter said.

That and many other warnings have so far been ignored, congressional officials said.

While Indian officials have been leaking the most recent text of the nuclear agreement since their delegation returned from Washington last weekend, the Bush administration has refused to discuss it publicly.

Today, the State Department is expected to brief reporters on the deal, though the document itself is not likely to be made public.

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