NEW DELHI, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush's India visit next week is threatened with disaster after a revolt by Indian nuclear scientists, senior officials and politicians against the Indo-American nuclear cooperation agreement that Bush plans to sign in New Delhi.
After angry scenes in the Indian parliament Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been warned by the left-wing parties in his ruling coalition that they will bring down his government by voting with the opposition against the nuclear agreement with the United States.
The hostility to the agreement has brought together an unprecedented alliance of critics who say that it is deeply damaging to Indian national interests, and will in effect curtail the future of India's independent nuclear deterrent.
In off-the-record briefings with senior officials in New Delhi, United Press International was told Thursday that they suspect "an underhand plot to destroy India's nuclear capability" by bringing India's nuclear research and reactors into the control and verification system of the International Atomic Energy Authority.
The officials also claimed that U.S. officials had "moved the goalposts" on the agreement as originally drafted in July of last year, and had added a series of new control measures in the small print that made it unacceptable to India.
The vehemence of Indian opposition to the deal has come as a surprise to U.S. negotiators. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, now in India and hoping to get an agreed draft of the deal before President Bush arrives next week, says that the negotiations are "90 percent complete."
But Indian officials are adamant that the deal must not and will not be completed as currently drafted, and that the Singh government will fall if the current text is signed.
The issue has become a touchstone for the future of U.S.-Indian relations that are being hailed in Washington as a historic strategic partnership. But Indian officials say that on the basis of the dispute over the nuclear deal, they now fear that Washington is not ready for a partnership of equals and is seeking to treat India as a subordinate ally.
"India has been a nuclear power for thirty years, and we have been the good boys of the system because we have never proliferated. But Pakistan and China have proliferated their nuclear technology, and Pakistan's nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan has been selling it virtually to all comers," complained one high-level official who has briefed the Indian cabinet on these concerns. "But we are the ones being treated as the bad boys, while Washington turns a blind eye to the behavior of China and Pakistan."
The U.S. view is that India should clearly separate its civilian from its military nuclear technology, and bring all aspects of its civilian nuclear industry into the IAEA control regime. Unless that happens, current U.S. law would prohibit the technology sharing and civilian nuclear cooperation that the agreement is supposed to promote.
Moreover, as it struggles diplomatically to restrain the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, the Bush administration is keen to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the control systems of the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Giving way to Indian concerns would undermine the broader U.S. policy of strengthening the international anti-proliferation regime.
According to Indian officials, the nuclear agreement breaches three red lines for Indian national security.
First, it would limit India's future ability to produce fissile material for the development and expansion of India's nuclear arsenal. India currently has some 70 nuclear warheads, and senior security officials have told UPI that the country needs "at least 300 warheads" to guarantee its future deterrence against Pakistan and China, its two nuclear-armed neighbors.
The current agreement would include India's next generation of fast-breeder nuclear reactors, which are said to be essential to the future production of fissile material. If they are brought within the IAEA system, this could limit India's capability to produce a larger arsenal. The Bush administration has agreed to leave outside the IAEA control system India's existing reactors that produce fissile material for military use. But these reactors are almost at the end of their working life and can produce enough fissile materials for only 20-30 more nuclear weapons.
Second, the agreement would bring Indian nuclear research laboratories under the IAEA's inspection and control regime. This has produced a revolt among India's nuclear scientists. They are prepared to allow IAEA controls over those parts of India's nuclear program that depend on international cooperation, but insist that India's homegrown nuclear research programs have to remain outside the IAEA system.
They fear in particular that India's pioneering and top-secret work on thorium as a nuclear fuel would be compromised under the IAEA regime, and that their researches would become available to potentially hostile countries. They claim they are close to a breakthrough on thorium technology which would make India independent of uranium supplies, and suspect that the U.S. draft of the agreement is really designed to block India's lead in this new area of nuclear technology.
Third, they oppose the U.S. insistence that the nuclear agreement be binding "in perpetuity."
"In a democracy, no government can be bound in perpetuity by decisions of its predecessors," one senior security official told UPI. "Everybody knows this. So there is a suspicion that this clause has been inserted to provide a justification for sanctions if a future Indian government decides to scrap the agreement. It looks like a trap."
It is difficult to exaggerate the depth of feeling among senior Indian officials who oppose the deal. They are suspicious of American motives, and they are now starting to question the goodwill that President Bush insists he is bringing to the long-term strategic partnership.
"We have been promised a great deal by President Bush in cooperation on space technology and on access to dual-use technology but so far we have seen zero from the American side," complained another senior official.