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Congress, NSG Question U.S.-Indian Deal
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Wade Boese

After surprising the world and Congress last summer with its proposal to expand global civil nuclear trade with India, the Bush administration is now asking lawmakers and other governments to help make it happen. Although some quickly expressed their support, others are opposed or undecided and in no rush to act.

At its core, the proposed U.S.-Indian deal, consummated July 18, 2005, and fleshed out further March 2, requires India to divide its nuclear complex into military and civilian sectors and open the civilian side to international oversight, including inspections. In return, the Bush administration is seeking India-specific exemptions to U.S. law and international rules to permit nuclear commerce with India’s declared civilian nuclear entities and facilities.

Nuclear trade with India has been significantly restricted since 1974 when it used Canadian and U.S. nuclear imports to build and test a nuclear device. In response to this test, the United States spearheaded the 1975 creation of the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to help regulate global nuclear trade, and Congress passed the 1978 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act.

The law establishes strict conditions for all U.S. nuclear trade agreements with other governments. The United States and India have yet to finalize a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, but Washington submitted a draft deal to New Delhi March 14.

Meanwhile, the administration forwarded a proposal to Congress March 9 to exempt the bilateral U.S.-Indian cooperation agreement from statutory conditions once it is completed. Typically, such an exemption would require majority approval both from the Senate and the House of Representatives. But the administration has proposed a different process that would essentially allow the bilateral agreement to pass after 90 days if a two-thirds’ majority of each chamber of Congress does not vote to oppose it.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a vociferous critic of the U.S.-Indian deal, condemned the administration’s approach March 10. “It appears that the administration wants to avoid a vote on the actual text of the nuclear cooperation agreement they will be negotiating with the Indian government,” he stated. Markey added, “Perhaps they’ve begun to realize that if the members have to actually vote on this bad deal, they’ll face a serious uphill battle.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) introduced the administration’s proposal as legislation within days of receiving it, but neither endorsed the approach. Instead, they commented on the deal’s importance and complexity and the need for legislators to learn more about it.

Hyde even went a little further. A March 13 press release from his committee noted that “Hyde suggested that Congress may seek conditions for its approval.”

Since concluding the deal, Bush administration officials have repeatedly warned Congress against asking India to undertake additional obligations. As Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, who served as the deal’s primary negotiator, reiterated March 16, “[I]f you try to open it up and renegotiate it, you probably wouldn’t be able to put it back together again.”

Still, several in Congress, including some key Republicans, are voicing reservations. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, pronounced himself “skeptical” March 5 on ABC’s This Week. Expressing concern about how nuclear trade might aid India’s nuclear weapons program, Hunter cautioned that “the president is trying to ride the nuclear tiger.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), an important GOP moderate, said on the same broadcast, “I am leery whenever we put any kind of nuclear capability off-limits to international inspections.” India is keeping eight of 22 thermal reactors and two fast-breeder reactors outside of international supervision and reserving the right to classify future reactors of both types as military and off- limits to outsiders.

The deal also has strong supporters. Former co-chairs of the congressional caucus on India and Indian Americans, Reps. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), sent a March 2 letter to their fellow members hailing the plan as a “landmark effort.”

Burns said the administration is “encouraged” by the number of legislators who have provided positive feedback, but he also conceded, “[A] lot of them have technical questions or they want to see the full development of our argument in testimony.” He added, “I think that we are in, you know, round one of a 15-round match.”

The administration is also in another bout to persuade the other 44 NSG members to exempt India from the group’s rule that a non-nuclear-weapon state must provide international access and supervision to all of its nuclear facilities to be eligible for nuclear imports. India possesses an estimated 50-100 nuclear weapons, but it is defined by the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear-weapon state be cause it did not test a nuclear weapon before Jan. 1, 1967. Along with Israel and Pakistan, India has shunned the NPT.

In mid-March, the administration began circulating its preferred NSG approach for exempting India. If approved, the administration’s new rule would permit a group member to export nuclear goods to India if that particular government was “satisfied” that New Delhi was abiding by its nonproliferation commitments, such as maintaining a nuclear testing moratorium.

To take effect, the administration’s proposal would need to be adopted by consensus. Although no NSG member has publicly objected to reviving nuclear trade with India, several, including Austria, Brazil , Japan, Norway, and Sweden, reportedly have qualms. In early March, German political parties began debating what position Berlin should take.

China , which has close nuclear ties to Pakistan, has not taken a clear public stance. However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang March 2 called for NPT nonsignatories to “get on board” the treaty as non-nuclear-weapon states “at an early date.”

Islamabad has questioned the U.S.-Indian deal while voicing interest in a similar arrangement. Washington has repeatedly ruled out such a possibility.

France , Russia, and the United Kingdom have backed the U.S. proposal on India, which also received the blessing of International Atomic Energy Agency Director- General Mohamed ElBaradei. “This agreement would serve the interests of both India and the international community,” ElBaradei stated March 2.

Moscow , however, is not waiting on the NSG to approve the deal. Russia informed the United States in March that it would supply India with nuclear fuel for its Tarapur reactors. The Kremlin defended the shipments as being justified for safety reasons and, therefore, not an NSG violation. India, which is not a group member, asserted the same.

Burns made clear March 16 that Washington disagreed. He argued the “proper sequencing” would be for U.S. law and the NSG provision to be changed first and then other countries could conduct nuclear trade with India.

The NSG’s next decision-making meeting is scheduled for May 29-June 2 in Rio de Janeiro . According to congressional and diplomatic sources, Bush administration officials have been urging Congress and the NSG each to act before the other, but both are reluctant to hurry and do not want to be stampeded into a decision.