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Hurdles Cleared in the US Congress for Nuclear Deal

A. Vinod Kumar was Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 10, 2006

    After months of excruciating negotiations, testimonies and debates, the two crucial committees of the US Congress voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Indo-US nuclear agreement, setting the stage for a formal Congressional vote. The International Relations Committee of the House of Representatives approved a legislation favouring the agreement with a near three-fourths majority (37 to 5) on June 27. This was followed by a bigger mandate (16 to 2) in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 29, thus ensuring a definite "yes" vote at the joint session of the Congress. Though some deal-breaking amendments came up before both committees, they were rejected by huge margins in a demonstration of bipartisan support for nuclear co-operation and stronger ties with India. The bill titled "US and India Nuclear Cooperation Promotion Act, 2006" (H.R. 5682) presented in the House Committee was a modified version of H.R. 4974 presented last year by House Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, and has significant amendments on the role of Congress in the process. While the earlier version had reduced the role of Congress to a bare minimum and gave the administration leeway to waive laws regarding nuclear commerce, the new bill restores its traditional role in such agreements. Besides mandating an approval by both houses through an un-amendable Joint Resolution, the new bill also adds some reporting requirements and consultative measures.

    In this regard, a Sense of Congress has been added that lays out conditions for civil nuclear co-operation. Reiterating that prevention of nuclear proliferation is the primary objective of US policy, the House committee showered praises on the NPT by terming it as a significant success and affirming that countries outside the Treaty pose challenges to its overall goals. Therefore, one way of ensuring 'responsible behaviour' from non-NPT states with nuclear capabilities, the committee reasoned, is for the US to enter into an agreement with a non-NPT member if: a) The country has demonstrated responsible behaviour with respect to non-proliferation; b) The country has a democratic system, a congruent foreign policy, and co-operates with the US in its key non-proliferation initiatives through greater political and material support; and c) Such co-operation induces the country to implement the highest protection against proliferation and refrains from further development of nuclear weapons.

    Assuming that New Delhi meets these conditions, the committee felt that the US could deepen its ties with India in many areas, including peaceful nuclear co-operation. Though an India-specific bill, the committee justified it by enunciating a set of parameters that would implicitly determine the framework for similar co-operation with other countries concurrent with their 'responsible behaviour'. Thus, one cannot discount a future US quid pro quo with a non-NPT or threshold state using this framework, especially when a need arises to legitimise the nuclear programmes of allies like Israel or Pakistan.

    In addition, there is a Statement of Policy that clarifies the US perspective on issues pertaining to NPT and NSG, among others. Contending that the US should oppose any new nuclear weapon state from within or outside the NPT, the committee has sent a clear message that co-operation on nuclear energy as enshrined in Article IV of the Treaty should be interpreted as applicable only for those who are in full compliance with its obligations. Included in its stated goals for South Asia are efforts to achieve a moratorium on weapon grade fissile material production by India, Pakistan and China, along with conclusion of the FMCT. The committee also expects India to fully participate in the Proliferation Security Initiative and commit to its Statement of Interdiction Principles. In the same breath comes the non-binding, but most desirable, Indian commitment to "dissuade, isolate, and, if necessary, sanction Iran for its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons capability." Interestingly, while prodding New Delhi on this, the committee has ignored India's demonstrated stand against Iran's non-compliance with IAEA obligations.

    Regarding the waivers to existing law, the nature of Presidential Certifications have been tightened and broadened so as to ensure that India accomplishes obligations that have been agreed upon. The President is thereby assigned authority of waiver if India fulfils its commitments in areas such as the separation plan, safeguard agreements and additional protocol with IAEA, conclusion of FMCT, co-operation on US non-proliferation activities, adherence to NSG, MTCR, Australia Group, and Wassenaar Arrangement. In addition, he will have to make annual certifications on India's compliance with various provisions of the agreement. Over half-a-dozen amendments came up in the House Committee related to India's accession to the NPT, its nuclear weapons, the India-specific NSG legislation and so on. While votes against such amendments stood at around 32 throughout, even those members who had pushed negative amendments eventually voted for the bill, as they did not want to be seen as acting against India.

    It was more of a cakewalk in the Senate Committee where two out of three amendments were accepted. While the committee approved Senator Obama's amendment for discontinuance of nuclear fuel supply to India if the deal is terminated, their reluctance to vote on India's nuclear weapons led to rejection of an amendment seeking a Presidential Certification that the US would not aid India's nuclear weapons programme. The Senate members then joined their House counterparts in mandating that the deal, once negotiated, should be approved by Congress before it enters into force.

    The successful vote at the two committees, and a forthcoming final Congressional vote, would pave the way for exemptions from Sections 123, 128 and 129 of the US Atomic Energy Act 1954. This would lead to the creation of a new nuclear energy regime whereby US companies could apply for licenses to export nuclear reprocessing equipment and technology to India. Though there is general satisfaction in India on the legislation, criticisms have been made on some 'intrusive' references in the Sense of Congress, which are in fact non-binding clauses usually insisted upon during all such legislations. Still, some experts feel that New Delhi has conceded much, especially in foreign policy commitments, in return for a mere nuclear co-operation agreement. Revered nuclear scientist Homi Sethna, for instance, went to the extent of remarking that joining the NPT would have been a better option for India!

    The eventual passage of the bill would be a major success for the Bush administration, especially for ensuring that the concerted campaign against the deal from many quarters did not find much echo in the Congress. All eyes are now on the negotiation process of the 123 Agreement, which is being fine-tuned in accordance with the committees' requirements so as to ensure a 'yes' vote in August before the Congress goes on recess. Both sides can now confidently wait for the day when a resolution at a joint session of the Congress would read: The Congress hereby approves the Agreement for Nuclear Co-operation between the United States of America and the Republic of India submitted by the President, titled "Joint Resolution Approving an Agreement for Nuclear Co-operation Between the United States and India.''