WASHINGTON, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- The much-heralded civilian nuclear cooperation deal signed last April between India and the United States looks in danger of unraveling ahead of President Bush's visit to New Delhi in early March.
First there is congressional opposition to the deal under which the United States agreed to supply India with civilian nuclear technology in exchange for New Delhi separating its civilian and military nuclear facilities. The problem: Although India has a good record on nonproliferation issues, it is not a signatory of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, the cornerstone of global anti-proliferation efforts since the 1960s. Giving India special privileges, critics argue, damages the NPT and hurts global nonproliferation efforts.
Then there are India's relations with Iran. The country was part of Bush's original "axis of evil" along with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The West believes Iran is violating its NPT obligations and secretly making nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies. India has had traditionally good ties with Iran based on culture and at the same time fast-improving ties with the West based on commerce. It also has a rapidly expanding economy in desperate need of energy.
India is talking with Iran and Pakistan about a gas pipeline that starts in Iran and ends in India, not only bolstering relations with Islamabad but also securing a steady supply of gas from one of the world's top producers. The United States had opposed the deal but under India's Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, who pushed for broadening India's energy relations with Central Asia, China and Iran, the pipeline deal looked assured. Over the weekend, however, Aiyar was replaced by Murali Deora, a lawmaker who is known to be pro-United States.
Deora did not specifically refer to the pipeline but said Monday some of his predecessor's decisions would be reviewed.
"Some of the policies would continue, while some may need change," he said in New Delhi.
Although this may in the long run please Washington, there is the more immediate question of how India will vote next this week in Vienna at the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran's nuclear program. The United States and the European Union want Tehran referred to the U.N. Security Council for removing U.N. seals at its nuclear facilities and threatening to resume uranium enrichment. India has remained tight-lipped about how it will vote, but news reports from New Delhi suggest it may abstain.
Deora did not shed much light on how the vote would go, but said: "The upcoming IAEA vote affects the Petroleum Ministry more than any other ministry as it has a direct impact on energy security of the country," he said.
The U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, David Mulford, last week prompted a sharp rebuke from the Indian government when he linked the civilian nuclear deal with India's vote at the IAEA.
In an interview with the semi-official Press Trust of India news agency, Mulford said if New Delhi did not vote to refer Tehran to the Security Council, it would be "devastating" for the civilian nuclear deal.
I think the Congress will simply stop considering the matter,'' he said, adding the deal "will die in the Congress."
The U.S. State Department quickly moved in to blunt the effects of the remarks. Spokesman Sean McCormack said Mulford was "expressing an opinion" about possible congressional reaction.
"Let me be clear. Ultimately how India votes on this matter is going to be a decision for the Indian government," he said. "They voted to find Iran in non-compliance that last time around."
The nuclear agreement between the two sides needs the approval not only of the U.S. Congress but also of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which counts 44 nations as its members. But first, India must separate its nuclear facilities, another process that is likely to divide the two nations.
In an interview to PTI published Sunday, Mulford said India's plan to separate its facilities were, in fact, inadequate. He said Washington wanted more of India's facilities to be classified as civilian, where they will be subject to inspection.
"If the plan that's put forward doesn't appear to put ... the great majority of nuclear reactors into the civilian program, then I think, members of the Congress are going to say, 'Wait a minute, we thought that India wanted to develop a civil nuclear industry,'" he said.
He added: "We have to deliver a credible plan and that standard has not been met yet."
With India at this point preferring to classify many of its nuclear sites and defense facilities to avoid international inspections, a credible plan that satisfies both sides will be the key hurdle ahead of Bush's visit to India in March.