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Bush Signs Nuclear Pact With India

Times Staff Writer

A landmark nuclear cooperation deal with India announced by President Bush on Thursday would cement a major shift in American policy, giving the South Asian giant access to U.S. technology even though some of its reactors would remain off-limits to international inspectors.

The agreement, which could yet be derailed by Congress, allows India to continue expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal in exchange for permitting international inspections of its civilian reactors for the first time. It lifts a moratorium against nuclear cooperation with a nation that has not signed the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty aimed at halting the spread of atomic weapons.

Critics said the deal could complicate U.S. and European efforts to block nuclear weapons production in countries such as Iran and North Korea while prompting Pakistan to ponder ways of maintaining nuclear parity with India, its longtime rival.

Yet the pact received initial praise from Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning director-general of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, who called it “timely for ongoing efforts to consolidate the nonproliferation regime, combat nuclear terrorism and strengthen nuclear safety.”

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In announcing the agreement here with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Bush said it marked a crucial advance in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons because India would place a majority of its existing facilities -- 14 of 22 -- under international scrutiny for the first time.

But it also appeared that India had scored a major victory in preserving its weapons-making capabilities while setting the stage for major U.S.-backed technology upgrades in its civilian energy program. The accord gives India the final say over which existing and new reactors will be closed to inspectors -- and officials indicated Thursday that at least one massive new “fast-breeder” plant would be used for weapons and therefore closed to international observers.

Bush and Singh emphasized that the agreement was a symbol of a rapidly warming and mutually beneficial relationship between the U.S. and India, which traditionally have not been allies. India, with a population of 1.1 billion, is the world’s biggest democracy, but historically it was closer to the Soviet Union, and in recent years has drawn criticism from Washington for its active nuclear weapons program. More recently, India opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

“The first thing I will say to our Congress is that our relationship [with India] is changing to the better,” Bush said. “You know, sometimes it’s hard to get rid of history, and short-term history shows that the United States and India were divided. We didn’t have much of a relationship. And as a result, there are laws on the books that reflect that.

“Now the relationship is changing dramatically,” the president said. “People in the United States have got to understand that trade with India is in our interests, that diplomatic relations with India is in our interests, that cultural exchanges with India are in our interest.”

The administration’s point man on the negotiations acknowledged that the U.S. did not get everything it wanted.

“It’s not a perfect deal in the sense that we haven’t captured 100% of India’s nuclear program,” Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said.

“But the majority of the program will now come under international inspection. And we think that is a tremendous and positive gain for us,” he said.

Nevertheless, it appeared in the hours after the announcement that India had emerged a winner.

Under terms outlined by officials of both governments, India can keep eight of its 22 existing reactors under wraps as secret military sites. Moreover, it can decide whether to open any new weapons-friendly fast-breeder reactors to inspection as civil sites or to classify them as secret military installations, including the huge plant under construction and a second prototype reactor, which Indian officials indicated Thursday would remain closed to monitors.

Robert J. Einhorn, a former State Department expert on proliferation issues in the Clinton and Bush administrations, said India had accomplished all its goals: retaining the rights to import uranium and produce plutonium while earning recognition as a nuclear power.

“The Indians should be very proud of their negotiators. They achieved all of their objectives,” said Einhorn, now a senior advisor at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s not clear what the administration’s objectives were, but it’s unlikely that they achieved them.”

Einhorn said the U.S. had initially offered to let India produce weapons materials at its two planned fast-breeder reactors -- enough to produce as many as six bombs a year. But India, underscoring its interest in a more robust weapons program, rejected the deal, he said.

“That was apparently not enough for India,” Einhorn said.

Critics said the accord would only encourage rogue nations to pursue weapons programs, emboldened by a U.S. decision to do nuclear business with a country that has not signed the nonproliferation treaty.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), co-chairman of a new coalition created to oppose the agreement, predicted Thursday that U.S. lawmakers would refuse to go along.

“With one simple move the president has blown a hole in the nuclear rules that the entire world has been playing by and broken his own word to assure that we will not ship nuclear technology to India without the proper safeguards,” Markey said.

Even Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) offered tepid support, saying he was “encouraged” by some aspects of the pact, but adding, “It is important to take into consideration the nonproliferation concerns raised by some of my colleagues.”

The agreement caps eight months of intensive diplomacy and frantic, last-minute dealings that ended less than an hour before Bush and Singh appeared at a news conference carried live on Indian television.

Officials from both sides were eager to strike a deal during Bush’s visit rather than risk the appearance of a failure at a time when the two leaders are forging closer ties on trade, economics and military operations.

Thursday’s announcement filled in the details of a general accord reached by Bush and Singh last summer, in which the U.S. first agreed to assist India in its nuclear energy development. In return, India accepted international safeguards for a number of its reactors, including inspections by the IAEA.

India’s separation of civilian and nuclear reactors would be phased in over the next eight years. U.S. officials did not release printed details of the accord, but, addressing reporters, Burns said the deal included assurances from India that it would not transfer technology to other nations and would continue its unilateral ban on bomb testing. Negotiators also left open the possibility of a cutoff in plutonium production, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons.

“Since the establishment of the Indian nuclear program in 1974, there has been no international oversight, and now the majority of India’s program will be under supervision of the international agency,” Burns said.

U.S. officials said the deal would help India meet its expanding energy needs while limiting the country’s reliance on fossil fuels such as oil and coal. Also, the agreement carries potentially major economic benefits for U.S. companies, which officials said Thursday could reap billions in profits from nuclear technology sales.

India’s media trumpeted the agreement as historic for recognizing the nation as a legitimate nuclear power and allowing it to bar international inspectors from all facilities it declares military. “It’s a Deal. A Very Big Deal,” a front-page headline in today’s Times of India declared.

The deal still requires the approval of both Congress and the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group.

“It’s Orwellian doublespeak by the administration,” said Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington. “They’re giving up their ability to be credible when they oppose proliferation.”

The administration hopes to gain export revenues for U.S. companies and ensure Indian support against Iran at the IAEA, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog. Though the White House contends that India is a reliable partner, some analysts counter that its poor export controls could allow states seeking nuclear weapons to one day obtain critical components from India.

“Proliferant states are already targeting India. It’s one of the ideal places to look for high-tech items,” said former IAEA weapons inspector David Albright.

At a hearing Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one foreign relations expert maintained that the administration had undermined its case against the ruling clerics of Iran by forging an agreement with India.

“It is very difficult to make the case to the international community and to the Iranians themselves that we are serious about proliferation,” said Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And that’s what Iran has said: ‘You people don’t care about proliferation, you care only about the character of the regime, and therefore why should we make any concessions?’ ”

Reacting to the news, Pakistani officials said they hoped the U.S. would make available a similar deal on its civilian nuclear program.

Burns said Pakistan, like Iran and North Korea, was not eligible for India-like treatment. India, he said, has a clean record on the spread of nuclear technology, while those countries do not.

India and Pakistan have been in a nuclear arms race, conducting tit-for-tat tests in 1998. It took U.S. diplomacy in 2002 to defuse a potential war.

Bush is scheduled to arrive tonight in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, for talks with President Pervez Musharraf.

Administration officials said Thursday that the White House planned to lobby hard on Capitol Hill for the accord with India.

In an unusual combination of international diplomacy and the ways of modern-day Washington, the White House’s advocacy efforts will be backed by a team of private lobbyists hired by the Indian government.

Republican lawmakers are likely to hear from the GOP firm of Barbour Griffith & Rogers, whose president, Robert Blackwill, is the administration’s former ambassador to India. India has also hired Venable, a lobbying firm with Democratic ties.

The administration is expected to tap into its network of influential and affluent Indian Americans, including many physicians and other professionals who have raised millions of dollars for Bush’s campaigns.

The nuclear deal was the highlight of Bush’s two-day visit, which also included agreements to escalate cooperation between the United States and India on business, trade, including opening the U.S. market for the first time to India’s famed mangoes.

Times staff writers Nick Timiraos in Washington and Paul Watson in New Delhi and special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad contributed to this report.


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