WASHINGTON // US senators voted yesterday to overturn a three-decade ban on atomic trade with India, giving final congressional approval to a landmark US-India nuclear co-operation accord and handing President George W Bush a rare foreign policy victory in his final months in office. The Senate voted 86-13 to allow American businesses to begin selling nuclear fuel, technology and reactors to India in exchange for safeguards and UN inspections at India's civilian, but not military, nuclear plants.
The accord, which the House of Representatives approved on Saturday, marks a major shift in US policy toward nuclear-armed India after decades of mutual wariness. It now goes to Mr Bush for his signature. The US president hailed the Senate's vote, saying in a statement that the legislation approving the accord "will strengthen our global nuclear non-proliferation efforts, protect the environment, create jobs and assist India in meeting its growing energy needs in a responsible manner."
In India, the governing Congress party spokesman Veerappa Moily called the deal "a monumental achievement. It's a victory of prime minister Manmohan Singh's government." 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 has long maintained what administration officials consider a responsible nuclear program.
Bush officials have also championed the opportunities for US firms to do business in India's multimillion-dollar nuclear market. The Republican Senator Richard Lugar said the pact protects US national security and non-proliferation 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 US population, India can be an anchor of stability in Asia and an engine of global economic growth," Mr Lugar said.
Opponents say lawmakers, eager to leave Washington to campaign for November elections, rushed consideration of a complicated deal that would 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. The Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan 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. Mr Dorgan said the US 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 behaviour with an agreement with the United States of America."
"What message does that send to others who want to join the nuclear club?" Mr Dorgan asked. Ed Markey, a Democrat in the House, 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 US nuclear trade if India should detonate a nuclear device - an attempt to make sure US nuclear exports do not help boost India's nuclear weapons program.
Mr Lugar, opposing the amendment, noted 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." Mr Bush and Mr Singh announced their intention to pursue nuclear co-operation in July 2005. US 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 it for final approval.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the 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 states in committing to a legally binding nuclear test ban. Before nuclear trade could begin, Mr Kimball said, India has to sign a safeguards agreement with the UN nuclear watchdog agency and a convention that extends protection to nuclear suppliers in case of a nuclear accident.