WASHINGTON – The Senate on Wednesday voted to overturn a three-decade ban on atomic trade with India, giving final congressional approval to a landmark U.S.-India nuclear cooperation accord and handing President Bush a rare foreign policy victory in his final months in office.
The accord, which the Senate passed 86-13, will allow American businesses to begin selling nuclear fuel, technology and reactors to India in exchange for safeguards and U.N. inspections at India's civilian, but not military, nuclear plants. The pact, which the House approved Saturday, marks a major shift in U.S. policy toward nuclear-armed India after decades of mutual wariness.
It now goes to Bush for his signature.
Bush hailed the Senate's vote, saying in a statement that the legislation approving the accord "will strengthen our global nuclear nonproliferation efforts, protect the environment, create jobs and assist India in meeting its growing energy needs in a responsible manner."
Congressional approval caps an aggressive three-year diplomatic and political push by the Bush administration, which portrays the pact as the cornerstone of new ties with a democratic Asian power that long has maintained what administration officials consider a responsible nuclear program. Administration officials also have championed the opportunities for U.S. companies to do business in India's multibillion-dollar nuclear market.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said the pact protects U.S. national security and nonproliferation efforts while building "a strategic partnership with a nation that shares our democratic values and will exert increasing influence on the world stage."
"With a well-educated middle class that is larger than the entire U.S. population, India can be an anchor of stability in Asia and an engine of global economic growth," Lugar said.
Opponents say lawmakers, eager to leave Washington to campaign for the November elections, rushed consideration of a complicated deal that they said could spark a nuclear arms race in Asia. The extra fuel the measure provides, they say, could boost India's nuclear bomb stockpile by freeing up its domestic fuel for weapons.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said the accord "will almost certainly expand the production of nuclear weapons by India" and help dismantle the architecture of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the global agreement that provides civilian nuclear trade in exchange for a pledge from nations not to pursue nuclear weapons.
India built its bombs outside the NPT, which it refuses to sign. It has faced a nuclear trade ban since its first atomic test in 1974; its most recent nuclear test blast was in 1998.
Dorgan said the U.S. is telling the world that, like India, "you can misuse American nuclear technology and secretly develop nuclear weapons; you can test those weapons; you can build a nuclear arsenal in defiance of the United Nations resolutions, and you will be welcomed as someone exhibiting good behavior with an agreement with the United States of America."
"What message does that send to others who want to join the nuclear club?" Dorgan said.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said, "Now that the nuclear rules have been broken for India's sake, Iran, Pakistan and North Korea will be looking for a way to similarly game the system."
The Senate rejected an amendment that called for the end of U.S. nuclear trade if India should detonate a nuclear device, an attempt to make sure U.S. nuclear exports do not help boost India's nuclear weapons program.
Lugar, opposing the amendment, pointed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's past comments that the deal would be called off should India test nuclear weapons. The pact's benefits, he said, "are designed to be a lasting incentive for India to abstain from further nuclear weapons tests."
Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced their intention to pursue nuclear cooperation in July 2005. U.S. lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the deal in a conditional form in late 2006. It then overcame strong political opposition in India, where critics threatened to bring down Singh's government, denouncing the accord as a ploy to make India Washington's pawn.
It received a boost this month when the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group of countries that supply nuclear material and technology agreed to lift a ban on civilian nuclear trade with India, the final hurdle before Congress could consider the accord for ratification.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the private Arms Control Association, said Congress has "swept several fundamental problems with the deal under the rug," including India's continued production of bomb-grade nuclear material and refusal to join 180 other nations in committing to a legally binding nuclear test ban.
Before nuclear trade could begin, Kimball said, India has to sign a safeguards agreement with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency and a convention that extends protection to nuclear suppliers in case of a nuclear accident.