U.S. in 'big, fat holding pattern' on Indian nuclear-technology deal

The White House has hit the brakes on implementation of a controversial nuclear-technology deal with India after lawmakers expressed skepticism about the pact.

President Bush signed the U.S.-India joint statement with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to pursue civilian nuclear cooperation July 18. For enhanced cooperation to take place, Bush is seeking changes in U.S. law and international regulations to allow energy-starved India to obtain restricted items, including nuclear fuel.

The Bush administration initially was hoping to bring concrete results to India as part of the president’s trip to that country early next year, but the White House is not sending its proposed legislative package to Congress until February at the earliest and as late as April.

“We are in a big, fat holding pattern,” a congressional source said. “The administration did come and had a discussion with us on general options for their legislative package, but they were not ready to commit on anything.”

But the administration potentially could run into another hurdle in implementing the nuclear deal: the 2006 midterm elections.

“Next year is going to be a very political year, and the chances for joint congressional action for an issue this complicated” could be small “unless the administration puts a real push on Congress,” the congressional source said.

“There is not a lot of congressional pressure to do this quickly,” the source added.

Much of the administration’s plan hinges on whether India can come up with a successful plan to separate its civilian nuclear facilities from the military ones, a move that could take a considerable amount of time.

Initially, the administration was hoping for a swift approval of the deal by Congress. But after legislators demanded the detailed implementation plan, the administration opted to hold off on pressing the Hill to ratify the pact.

“This plan, firstly, must be credible; secondly, it must be transparent; and lastly, it must be defensible from a nonproliferation standpoint,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).

“While the Bush administration has, I think, been very clear in discussions with the Indian government about its expectations, let me emphasize that any Indian plan will have to pass muster with the United States Congress. That should not be viewed as a threat but rather as a political challenge that should be met.” Lugar delivered his remarks at a meeting with Indian policymakers and business leaders this week.

“As long as we can keep a clear delineation between the civilian and military use [of nuclear technology] I think I can be supportive of it,” Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), a senior member of the House International Relations Committee, told The Hill. He said his support depends on the package put forth to Congress by the White House.

Burton, freshly returned from a nine-day trip to India and Pakistan, said that India needs help with its electricity production.

“The electricity went out when I was there,” he recalled. “They do want to use the nuclear technology for civilian purposes.”

Separating the civilian facilities from the military ones would allow the United States and other countries to ensure that nuclear cooperation with the civilian energy sector does not also benefit India’s weapons programs.

“The ball is in India’s court now,” the congressional source said.

The United States has fought for years to deny India access to nuclear technology because it developed and tested nuclear weapons. Although a nuclear power, India is not a signatory of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But Bush reversed the U.S. stance by signing the U.S.-India agreement on nuclear cooperation.

The separation of nuclear facilities is not the only thorny issue of the nuclear deal. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have warned the White House that they may not approve the deal with India until assurances are given about the country’s relationship with Iran.

Citing India’s cozy relationship with Iran, lawmakers are wary that U.S. information on advanced nuclear technology could end up in Iranian hands. Many security experts and analysts view Iran as a top national-security threat and dangerous proliferator of nuclear materials and technology. Bush has labeled Iran as part of the axis of evil.

“Iran bothers me, but they [India] are not giving any nuke technology to Iran and the letter of understanding [between the U.S. and India] indicates that,” said Burton, who stressed that India does not have a record of nuclear proliferation.

But lawmakers are concerned not just about India giving nuclear technology to Iran but also about its close economic relationship to that country.

The situation in Afghanistan in 1990 brought India and Iran together when they supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban regime. Since then, the two nations have signed energy deals, formed strategic partnerships and discussed building a shared oil pipeline.

Now India finds itself in a tough position, as the administration and Congress want it to adopt a more hard-line position on Iran.