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India eyes N-deal terms dilution

india Updated: Dec 04, 2006 18:25 IST

India is keeping its fingers crossed over the fate of a landmark civilian nuclear pact with the United States, hoping that binding and deal-breaking conditions are not included.

The US House of Representatives and Senate are expected to meet in a conference this week to reconcile separate bills they have approved to allow nuclear trade between the two countries for the first time in over three decades.

The two versions, however, have several amendments -- introduced mostly by opponents of the controversial deal -- which India has said are unacceptable and were not part of the original agreement reached by the two governments.

New Delhi's concerns were taken up last week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who wrote to heads of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House International Relations Committee, a senior Indian official said.

"Her letter reflects our worries," said the official, close to the negotiations over the deal. "She has expressed those concerns because we have raised them in the first place."

Rice, in her letter, had asked Congress not to ban the reprocessing of spent fuel or the sale of nuclear technology that could be used for enrichment of uranium, said the official, who did not want to be identified.

She had also asked Congress not to link the deal to a demand for India's continued support for US efforts to tackle an alleged nuclear arms programme by Iran, an old friend of New Delhi, he said.

New Delhi is also worried about several "intrusive" certification conditions that raise doubts over the permanence of the deal, he added.
The deal -- agreed in principle in July 2005 -- aims to overturn a three-decade ban on nuclear trade between the United States and India, which has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has tested nuclear weapons.

Apple and orange
Besides joint approval by the two chambers, the two governments also need to negotiate the fine print of a bilateral pact. The deal also needs the backing of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The deal has been slammed by a vocal non-proliferation lobby in the United States which says the agreement allows New Delhi to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal and would foster an arms race among India and nuclear rivals Pakistan and China.

But American firms have hailed the pact -- seen as a symbol of the growing friendship between the two nations -- and are eager to do business in the Indian energy market they estimate is worth about $100 billion.

One way out of the stalemate would be to move the deal-breaking conditions from the binding section to the non-binding side to assuage both Congress and New Delhi, analysts and lobby groups said.

"But the worry we have is that even if they are moved to the non-binding side, the rhetoric in India may not understand it and may create problems," said Robinder Sachdev, head of the Indian chapter of the US Indian Political Action Committee, a lobby group.

The communists, who shore up the coalition government and opposition parties have been strongly critical of new conditions in the deal which they say are attempts to curb the country's nuclear programme.

"President Ronald Reagan had said that an apple and an orange go into the (Congress) conference and ideally what comes out is a pear," said Sachdev. "I would say we need a pear."