Indian PM defends nuclear deal with U.S.

NEW DELHI - India is free to keep developing and testing nuclear weapons under its much-touted atomic cooperation pact with the United States, the country's prime minister said Monday, defending the deal in front of lawmakers who noisily demanded it be scrapped
Indian and U.S. leaders say the deal will cement a strategic partnership between the world's two largest democracies after decades spent on opposite sides of the Cold War divide.

But India's' right to push ahead with its cherished weapons program and, if needed, test atomic bombs has been seized on by critics of the deal in both countries, although for different reasons.

American critics say the deal, which only covers civilian cooperation, could also aid India's weapons program by freeing up domestic supplies of nuclear fuel, such as uranium. The pact reverses three decades of American policy by allowing the U.S. to send atomic fuel and technology to India, which has never signed international nonproliferation accords and has tested atomic weapons in the past.

Indian critics argue the pact could result in too much U.S. influence over their country's foreign policy and undermine its weapons program.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh insisted that was not the case in a speech to lawmakers Monday. The deal, he said, is "another step in our journey to regain our due place in global councils."

He also touted the benefits of the deal for India's booming, but energy starved economy.

As for fears it could stymie the weapons program Singh said, "This agreement does not in any way inhibit, restrict or curtail our strategic autonomy or capabilities."

While India retained the right "to undertake future nuclear tests if it is necessary in India's national interest," the country nonetheless remained committed to its unilateral moratorium on tests, put in place after New Delhi detonated a weapon in 1998, he added.

As he spoke, lawmakers from the Hindu nationalist opposition and from communist parties that support Singh but oppose the deal sought to drown out the prime minister, shouting, "We don't want to be American stooges," and "Cancel the nuclear deal!"

Similar protests by lawmakers earlier in the day forced the house to adjourn until Singh spoke in the afternoon.

The Hindu nationalists have no chance of the defeating the deal, which does not need to be approved by Parliament.

Singh's speech follows the sealing of a technical pact, known as the 1-2-3 agreement, which details how nuclear cooperation between New Delhi and Washington is to work.

India got nearly everything it wanted, including the right to stockpile and reprocess nuclear fuel, a key step in making weapons.

The deal itself does not contain a test ban, and some clauses strongly suggest an Indian test would not automatically scuttle the agreement if the move followed tests by either Pakistan or China, India's major rivals.

However, Congress last year included a test ban when it created an exception for India to American laws that prohibit civilian nuclear cooperation with countries that have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

That law, which was needed before the technical agreement could be worked out, has been seized on by Indian opponents as evidence that the U.S. is seeking to constrain the South Asian country's weapons program.

The opponents also object to a nonbinding clause in the legislation directing the U.S. president to determine whether India is cooperating with American efforts to confront Iran about its nuclear program. The critics say the clause shows American is intent on dictating foreign policy to India.

American critics worry about the lack of a test ban and say the deal will stymie U.S. anti-proliferation efforts, especially in Iran, by rewarding India for refusing to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran has signed the accord.

Despite those concerns, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said Sunday that he was confident the pact would get congressional approval.

On a three-day visit to India, Lieberman said he hoped the agreement would transform the U.S.-India relationship "into the most important bilateral relationship we have in the next century of our history."

Aside from being approved by U.S. lawmakers, India needs to make separate agreements with the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an assembly of nations that export nuclear material.

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By: fahed980 (433.82)

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