NEW DELHI – India's prime minister on Monday defended a landmark nuclear deal with the United States, rejecting strong opposition criticism that it would lead to the dismantling of India's atomic weapons.
Speaking in Parliament on the same day that U.S. President George W. Bush planned to sign the bill on nuclear cooperation into law, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said India has some concerns about the U.S. legislation.
However, he said they would be dealt with during technical negotiations on an overall U.S.-India cooperation agreement. He didn't elaborate on India's concerns.
"The United States has assured us that the bill would enable it to meet its commitments" made in agreements struck in July 2005 and March 2006 by Bush and Singh.
Singh said India would not accept new conditions and its nuclear weapons program would not be subject to interference of any kind because the agreement with the United States dealt with civil nuclear cooperation.
The India-U.S. deal would allow shipments of civilian nuclear fuel to India, overturning a three-decade-old U.S. anti-proliferation policy.
In return, India would accept safeguards and inspections at 14 civilian nuclear plants. Eight military plants would be off-limits.
Earlier, opposition leader L.K. Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party said India should not accept the U.S. legislation.
"I want this law to go," Advani said, adding that the deal would prevent India from conducting nuclear tests in the future.
"The primary objective is to cap, roll back and ultimately eliminate its (India's) nuclear weapons capability," Advani warned.
Singh asked Advani to wait for the conclusion of the overall U.S.-India cooperation agreement.
India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974 and followed it up with a series of nuclear tests in 1998.
Advani called the U.S. bill "unequal," saying its conditions would cripple India's nuclear program and not assure uninterrupted fuel supplies for the country's civilian nuclear reactors.
India's two main communist parties, which support the ruling coalition, have asked Singh's government to seek U.S. clarification of clauses that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said would "seriously undermine" New Delhi's foreign policy.
India's government has pushed hard for the deal, saying it is urgently needed to help meet the country's energy needs.
The U.S. Congress overwhelmingly approved the bill on Dec. 9.
But the version it approved has raised concerns in India over provisions that could limit India's right to reprocess spent atomic fuel and employ other sensitive nuclear technologies.
There are also concerns over provisions that would require Bush and his successors to determine whether New Delhi is cooperating with Washington's efforts to confront Iran about its nuclear program.
On Monday, the Indian prime minister rejected such concerns and said his government would continue to pursue an independent foreign policy consistent with its national interest.