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Bush set to sign controversial nuclear deal with India

Monday, December 18, 2006

US President George W. Bush will sign into law Monday a landmark civilian nuclear agreement with India, but experts say the two nations are bracing for tough negotiations on the nuts and bolts of the complex deal.
The deal finally sailed through the US Congress on December 9 allowing the export of civilian nuclear fuel and technology to India for the first time in the more than 30 years since the Asian country first tested a nuclear device.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the deal "reflects not only the growing importance of India as a partner and ally with the United States, but I think we have the growing importance of the United States, also, as an ally with India."

Even so, experts said, there were significant hurdles to be crossed.

"There are still many steps before it becomes something that is complete," Michael Levi, a science and technology expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, a respected US think tank, told AFP.

They include devising a bilateral agreement incorporating all technical details of the deal as well as nuclear safeguards for India that must be endorsed by the international community.

Popularly known as a "123 Agreement", the bilateral pact will be the sole binding document defining the terms of the anticipated nuclear commerce arising from the deal, which the US Chamber of Commerce says could open up a whopping 100 billion dollars in opportunities for American businesses.

The bilateral agreement will have to be approved again by the US Congress, to be controlled next year by Democrats known for their strong non-proliferation views.

"The completion of a 123 Agreement is really a codification of the major and difficult decisions we have already made," said Nicholas Burns, the top US negotiator of the nuclear deal.

"And, of course, there is a long process towards the finish line, but it is not going to be, in my judgment, as difficult as the last 18 months," he said of the deal, agreed by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George W. Bush way back in July 2005.

One key component of the bilateral agreement is nuclear safeguards, which India, a non-signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), would be subject to under a separate agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global nuclear watchdog.

The other is the guidelines governing civilian nuclear commerce to be drawn up with the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG).

The pace of the negotiations for the bilateral pact would depend on how far the Indians will go in accepting IAEA safeguards aimed at ensuring that New Delhi does not use any US nuclear materials or technology to expand its military nuclear arsenal.

"I think the primary obstacles going forward are in crafting an appropriate safeguards agreement with the IAEA and an appropriate agreement at the NSG," Levi said.

"The main point of conflict is over how permanent the safeguards will be," he said.

India first agreed for the safeguards to be permanent but now is asking for an exception if bilateral nuclear cooperation is scrapped in the future, Levi said.

Washington stopped nuclear cooperation with India after it conducted its first nuclear test in 1974.

Under the US legislation passed last week, if Indian conducts another nuclear test, the US president "must terminate all export and reexport of US-origin nuclear materials, nuclear equipment, and sensitive nuclear technology to India."

Indian atomic scientists and military officials are wholly opposed to a moratorium on nuclear testing, and likely will declare this provision a deal-breaker, said Stratfor, a leading US security consulting intelligence agency.

The other "big sticking point" for India, it said, was a US provision -- although non-binding -- on securing New Delhi's cooperation in containing Iran's sensitive nuclear program.

"Though the requirement has been watered down, the mere inclusion of an Iran clause will be cause for protest by India's vocal leftist parties," which provide needed support for India's ruling Congress-led coalition, Stratfor said.

The US Congress created a rare exception for India from some of the requirements of the US Atomic Energy Act, which currently prohibits nuclear sales to non-NPT signatories.

"But before the waiver can come into effect, the US President has to certify that the IAEA and NSG agreements with India meet certain standards," Levi said.



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