Reversing three decades of U.S. policies intended to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, Congress early today approved a long-stalled agreement giving India access to American nuclear technology with limited safeguards to discourage possible proliferation.
The House of Representatives passed the measure, 330 to 59, Friday night, and senators voted unanimously in favor of the deal shortly before 3 a.m. President Bush, who finalized the terms of the agreement during a visit to India in March, is expected to sign it quickly.
The pact would lift a U.S. moratorium on nuclear cooperation with a nation that has developed atomic weapons and has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1970. But Bush and supporters of the agreement argue that it marks a crucial advance in restricting nuclear weapons because it permits international inspectors to examine most of India's civilian nuclear reactors for the first time.
In addition, they say that opening India's nuclear industry to $100 billion in potential sales from abroad will help cement a relationship with a developing economic power that may also serve as a hedge against the growing clout of China in Asia.
Critics argued that by allowing India's nuclear arsenal to keep growing and keeping some of its facilities off-limits, the pact establishes a double standard and sets conditions under which treaty violations would be tolerated.
"Such a policy unravels years of successful U.S. diplomatic efforts to convince countries that the benefits of surrendering the right to develop nuclear weapons outweighed the risk of staying outside the treaty and pursuing a nuclear weapons option," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard Jr., a senior military fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a Washington think tank.
The deal now faces at least two additional hurdles. A treaty putting the provisions into effect will require Senate ratification, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, 45 nations that control exports of nuclear materials, also must approve the pact.
The suppliers group was formed in 1974 after India conducted a nuclear test.
Over months of debate, the measure's proponents were able to turn back fears that the accord would fuel a nuclear arms race in South Asia and that the United States was weakening its hand in seeking to restrict nuclear weapons development in Iran and North Korea.
Though India has been a nuclear power since 1974, its rival, Pakistan, first tested nuclear weapons in 1998.
Pakistan's military said in a statement that it had successfully test-fired a new version of its short-range, nuclear-capable missile today, the Associated Press reported.
Supporters said that rather than fueling arms development, the agreement will promote economic growth in the U.S. and India by easing political tensions and encouraging trade.
"India is a state that should be at the very center of our foreign policy and our attention," Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) said in House debate Friday.
Sanjay Puri, chairman of the U.S.-India Political Action Committee, said some estimates had placed the potential economic value of the deal at $30 billion in the United States and India alone, and that it could add 10,000 to 15,000 jobs in the U.S.
Alternatively, the failure of the deal would have "serious repercussions in terms of the political and economic relationship," he said.
The issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions delayed the measure's consideration until the last days of the 109th Congress. Legislators wanted assurances that India would cooperate with U.S. efforts to punish Iran, with sanctions if necessary, for its nuclear program.
But Bush administration officials feared such provisions would alienate India and scuttle the deal.
Ultimately, the two sides agreed on a compromise under which the president would submit reports on India's actions regarding Iran.
Under the agreement passed by Congress, India would be allowed to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal, but for the first time it would allow international inspections of its civilian reactors. However, inspectors would have access only to 14 of 22 reactors. The others, at military installations, would remain off-limits.
At the heart of the debate was the impact the deal would have on the nonproliferation treaty, a cornerstone of U.S. nuclear weapons policy since 1970. The treaty, aimed at preventing nonnuclear nations from acquiring atomic arms, has been signed by more than 180 countries.
Critics of the U.S.-India deal said it would undermine the treaty, encourage violations and lead to the spread of nuclear weapons.
During the debate Friday, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who had been among the most vocal opponents, said the U.S. was asking the United Nations to pressure Iran, a signatory to the treaty, "not to use civilian nuclear materials in order to create a military nuclear weapon."
At the same time, he said, India was on the verge of gaining U.S. approval of a nuclear fuel agreement although the Indian government had refused to sign the treaty and had engaged in a subcontinent nuclear arms race.
"We are going to provide the nuclear materials for their civilian nuclear program so that it will free up their domestic nuclear materials for their weapons program," he said.
Markey said that the accord would set off a "nuclear weapons domino effect" by encouraging other nations to ignore the nonproliferation treaty, and that Iran and North Korea would be at the top of the list.
Bush, in addition to focusing on the access inspectors would gain to Indian facilities, has argued that with a population of 1.1 billion and a growing economy, India needs to expand its nuclear energy facilities to lessen its need for conventional fuels.
Growing demand for oil and gas, he says, will put price pressure on the world's limited supplies.
Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set the agreement in motion during a meeting in Washington in July 2005, but negotiators were unable to complete it until March.
Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, who is visiting India, said ahead of Congress' approval that the deal would lead to an expansion of joint ventures between the countries and accompany increases in mutual counter-terrorism efforts.