The release of the text of the 123 agreement coincided with much of the US Congress preparing to leave for their late summer recess. While staffers expressed concerns that the Bush administration had conceded too much on reprocessing rights and nuclear fuel guarantees, most Washington observers feel the US Congress would eventually vote in favour of the 123 agreement. However, the margin of victory could be smaller than occurred for the Hyde Act. "There is less support today for the deal than there was last November," said an Indian official.
Besides the obvious procedural prerequisites of an India-IAEA safeguards agreement and a yes vote from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, two key obstacles could muddy a congressional okay for the 123:
* The wild card that could trip up congressional support would be any sense that India is consolidating an economic or military relationship with Iran.
* The nuclear deal's traditional opponents, the nonproliferation lobby, will insist India got too much leeway in fuel guarantees and reprocessing rights.
The NSG vote remains uncertain, largely because of the China factor. However, some Indian-American lobbyists like Ramesh Kapur of the Indian-American Security Leadership, believe that if Beijing overplays its hand in the NSG, an angry "US Congress could vote in favour of the 123 without NSG approval."
Questions about India's ties with Iran continue to cloud the minds of many US congressional staffers. Despite repeated State Department explanations, many in Washington believe in a mythical Indo-Iranian military relationship. Says Teresita Schaffer, South Asia expert of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "The staffers don't like the deal – they didn't like the Hyde Act either. The key will be to get to the elected members."
Part of the problem is that Congress tends not to look at the big picture and instead focuses on the week's front page news – which is often about Iran.
The US corporate lobby believes Iran is the only issue that could sink the deal.
The nonproliferation lobby, which inspired a petition by 23 Congressmen after the 123 agreement's conclusion was announced, is less of a worry. Michael Krepon of the Henry Stimson Center earlier summed up this lobby's argument: "The Bush administration should not make it easier for New Delhi to resume nuclear testing and to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. It appears that the 123 agreement fails to meet these minimal standards."
Sanjay Puri of the US-India Political Action Committee says at least four of the 23 congressmen are "opinion leaders" on Capitol Hill. "They are all from California. A lot of them were originally troubled by this agreement."
Arjun Bhagat, an Indian-American lobbyist from California, explains this represents a "very idealistic position" common on the West Coast. "Californians would probably vote disproportionately for the US to unilaterally disarm itself of its nuclear weapons." This is not about India, he feels, but about nuclear disarmament. Says Lisa Curtis, regional expert at the Heritage Foundation, "Most members are likely to wait and see how India's negotiations with the IAEA proceed as well as its efforts with the NSG."
US President George W Bush's political decline makes Republican support more difficult to predict. His party no longer automatically takes his lead. Republican think tanks like the Heritage Foundation strongly believed that the contentious "right of return" clause be part of the 123 agreement. Kapur says, "If we had a vote today, we might see less Republicans ayes and more Democratic support for the deal." Senior Democratic leaders like Senator Ted Kennedy, he says, have indicated they favour the 123.
There are signs that the Indian-American community has been less generous in donations to the Republican electoral kitty, partly because there is no clear Republican candidate. Kapur warns, "This is going to be an uphill battle. Don't take anything for granted." Schaffer agrees, saying the next few months will be a "nail-biter" for the nuclear deal.