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US Congress passes N-bill

india Updated: Dec 09, 2006 01:39 IST

THE LANDMARK India-US nuclear deal is through, barring the technicality of the final vote on the enabling bill, which had not taken place till the time of going to press. But diplomatic and congressional sources said they had no doubt it would be passed unanimously by both Houses.

President George W. Bush is planning an official ceremony to sign the bill into law next week.

At the heart of the bill is that it allows the US to provide nuclear technology and material to India’s civilian nuclear programme, ending a nearly 25-year boycott required by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime. Legally, it exempts India from fulfilling Section 123(a)2 of the US Atomic Energy Act which said cooperation was possible only when India put all its nuclear facilities under international inspection.

The US Congress explicitly accepts that New Delhi can have its nuclear cake and eat it too in the bill’s explanatory notes: “The conferees understand that US peaceful nuclear cooperation with India will not be intended to inhibit India’s nuclear weapons program.”

The juggling was in Capitol Hill’s desire, as the notes say, to ensure the bill did not “assist” India’s nuke weapons development. Another bit of balancing: carve a place in the NPT regime for India without leaving space for the Irans and Pakistans of the world.

Most of the clauses and amendments that India had protested against were diluted or placed in the toothless, non-binding parts of the legislation.

Draft clauses that held future cooperation hostage to tight monitoring systems and various presidential certifications were demoted to a set of information summaries. Says South Asia analyst Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation, “A presidential determination is binding, whereas a reporting requirement is merely a report by the administration to the Congress.”

The so-called Sherman amendment of the House draft which called for an end to nuclear cooperation if India violated global missile or nuclear nonproliferation agreements, survives in Section 104(d) of the bill. But after protests that it conflates individuals with governments, it waives sanctions if it is clear the Indian government is not the guilty party.

While the US keeps India within its worldwide ban on exporting reprocessing, enrichment and heavy water technology, the bill has a loophole in saying such technology could be made available in case of IAEA-approved research. India already has such knowhow, its interest would be future technological developments. Political scientist Sumit Ganguly of the University of Indiana, Bloomington, says, “This is no surprise. It would be impossible for the US to have granted carte blanche in this matter.”

The part of the bill that may cause problems in India will be the very little wiggle room it leaves for India in case there is another nuclear test. The bill makes it clear all bilateral cooperation would be off under such circumstances. However, the language seems to exclude subcritical nuclear testing from its strictures.

The testing issue is a red line for the Congress. One should not have expected major changes on this,” says Curtis.

The bill dilutes hopes the US would build up a “strategic fissile material reserve” for Indian reactors and that Washington would help to get other countries to help provide nuclear fuel if it did not do so. The latter is now restricted to a “market failure or other such reason.”

Irritating clauses on Iran, fissile material caps and so on have all been bundled into non-binding sections of the bill.