NEW DELHI - A landmark nuclear pact reached Thursday by President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh faced tough scrutiny by Congress and international regulators amid concerns that it would allow India to expand its nuclear arsenal by hundreds of weapons.
If approved by Congress, the accord would recognize India as a nuclear military power and herald a major expansion in ties between the world's largest democracy and the United States after decades of strained relations.
An ariel view shows protesters gathering during a demonstration against U.S. President George W. Bush in Mumbai March 2, 2006. India and the United States sealed a landmark civilian nuclear cooperation pact on Thursday, the centrepiece of Bush's first visit to the world's largest democracy. REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe
"What this agreement says is things change. Times change," Bush said, appearing with Singh at Hyderabad House, the Indian government's guest residence.
"We have made history today, and I thank you," Singh said.
Some U.S. lawmakers and many arms-control experts said the pact would undercut the global system designed to halt the spread of nuclear arms, making it harder to rein in suspected Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a co-sponsor of bipartisan legislation that would block the deal, said it made a mockery of the cornerstone of the system, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which India never signed.
"With one simple move the president has blown a hole in the nuclear rules that the entire world has been playing by," Markey said. "It empowers the hawks in every rogue nation to put their nuclear weapons plans on steroids."
While welcoming the accord, several senior Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said they would give it a rigorous review.
The accord also will have to pass muster with the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group. It was formed to regulate civilian nuclear trade after India detonated a device in 1974 using plutonium obtained from a Canadian-made civilian reactor that was supplied with heavy water by the United States.
The group decides matters by consensus. Several members expressed misgivings with the India-U.S. agreement.
The accord would end India's status as a nuclear renegade and clear the way for U.S. companies to sell civilian nuclear equipment to India. In return, India would declare 14 of 22 reactors part of its civilian program and place them under international monitoring.
Bush said Americans would benefit because increased use of nuclear power in India would reduce global demand for oil. With 1.1 billion people and one of the world's fastest growing economies, India is consuming a larger share of global energy supplies, a key force behind rising oil prices.
"Our Congress has got to understand that it's in our economic interest that India have a nuclear power industry," Bush said.
In addition to approving the pact, Congress would have to pass legislation exempting India from a 1978 law banning nuclear trade with nations that conduct nuclear test explosions or don't accept comprehensive safeguards laid out by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency.
IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei called the deal "a step forward towards universalization of the international safeguards regime."
The accord, however, excluded important parts of India's nuclear program from safeguards.
Eight reactors wouldn't be covered by the safeguards and could remain sources of plutonium for weapons. The facilities include several civilian power plants and a fast-breeder reactor that will produce large amounts of plutonium.
While many details of the agreement weren't disclosed, experts said that safeguards also wouldn't cover existing spent reactor fuel, which contains enough plutonium for more than 1,000 weapons, and a facility for enriching uranium, which also can be used to make nuclear weapons.
"The bottom line is that this deal would allow India to significantly increase its nuclear weapons arsenal and provides precious little safeguarding," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "This is a nonproliferation nothing-burger, and Congress will see it as that if they look carefully."
India has an estimated 50 to 60 nuclear warheads, according to a September report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. arms-control group.
Kimball also said India has shown interest in buying nuclear technology from other countries, including France and Russia. "There is no guarantee of special treatment for U.S. nuclear suppliers," he said.
Stephen Cohen, an India expert at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan policy research group, downplayed the danger that India would greatly expand its arsenal. Such a move wouldn't be in India's interest because it could trigger a nuclear arms race with Pakistan and China and prompt a reversal in U.S. policy, he said.
"It's not a perfect deal in the sense that we haven't captured 100 percent of India's nuclear program," conceded Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, the lead U.S. negotiator. "Part of its nuclear industry is to serve its nuclear weapons program. But the majority of the program will now come under international inspection."
Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler, was expected to seek a similar agreement when Bush visits Islamabad, the capital, on Friday.
But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently said Pakistan couldn't expect the same treatment. "Pakistan is not in the same place as India," she said.
Washington rejects such an arrangement with Islamabad because a smuggling network led by the founder of the country's nuclear program secretly sold Pakistani weapons-related technology and know-how to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
China, which maintains close economic and military ties with Islamabad, is expected to demand that it be allowed to sell civilian nuclear technology to Pakistan in return for supporting the Indo-U.S. accord within the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Burns pointed out that there have been no proliferation problems with India. He also noted that while India developed its program indigenously, Pakistan built its arsenal with stolen Western technology.
Relations between India and the United States deteriorated during the Cold War, when India sided with the Soviet Union and Pakistan allied with the United States.
Tensions increased after India's 1974 test explosion and worsened in 1998, when India conducted underground test blasts and declared that it had nuclear weapons. Pakistan followed with its own test explosions.
Hutcheson reported from New Delhi, Landay from Washington.
© 2006 Knight Ridder Newspapers