Senator Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican and one of United States Congress' fiercest advocates of nuclear non-proliferation, on Tuesday voiced serious concerns over the US-India civilian nuclear deal.
Lugar chairs the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee whose approval is imperative for the deal to go forward.
Congressional sources said the development could be a precursor that the Bush Administration's proposal, when presented to Congress, may be dead on arrival-- or comatose at best-- in its present form.
Sources told rediff India Abroad that Lugar's concerns, coupled with resentment that the administration has hardly kept lawmakers in the loop could ultimately result in Congress requiring the administration to procure a range of iron-clad guarantees from India.
They added that the procedure could drag on for months and put paid to White House's optimism that the deal could be ready for implementation by the time President Bush visits India in 2006.
In his opening statement at the hearing he has scheduled for Wednesday-- an advance copy of which was provided to rediff India Abroad-- featuring Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns and Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph as key witnesses, Lugar acknowledged that the July 18 Joint Statement issued by President George W Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh 'stands as a milestone in the US-Indian relationship'.
He said it covers the 'full range of economic, political, and security issues, as well as matters related to nuclear energy cooperation, and has the potential to bring our two countries closer together than ever before'.
Lugar declared that India is 'an important emerging power on the world stage' and 'enjoys a vibrant democracy, a rapidly growing economy, and an increasing influence in world affairs'.
Thus, Lugar conceded 'it is clearly in the United States' interest to develop a strong strategic relationship with India'.
But he quickly got on to his concerns over the nuclear agreement.
He said 'although the joint statement covers many areas of policy', commentary after the inking of the deal had focused narrowly on the nuclear energy section that states India will be treated as 'a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology'.
He said, as critics and advocates have argued, this necessarily 'represents a departure from previous US policies and international practices'.
Lugar pointed out that 'India has never signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the foundation of international efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons'.
He said India has developed a nuclear weapons arsenal, in conflict with the goals of the treaty and noted that in 1974, New Delhi 'violated bilateral pledges it made to Washington not to use US-supplied nuclear materials for weapons purposes'.
'More recently,' he recalled, 'Indian scientists have faced US sanctions for providing nuclear information to Iran.'
And he wasn't done in his laundry list of complaints. He said India's nuclear record with the international community has also 'been unsatisfying'.
'It has not acknowledged or placed under effective international safeguards all of its facilities involved in nuclear work, and its nuclear tests in 1998 triggered widespread condemnation and international sanctions,' he said.
- Column: The nuclear deal
Lugar said prior to the July 18 joint statement, India had repeatedly sought, unsuccessfully, to be recognised as an official nuclear weapons state, a status the NPT reserves only for the United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom.
He said those who oppose the deal argue that granting India such status will undermine the essential bargain that is at the core of the NPT-- that only by foregoing nuclear weapons can a country gain civilian nuclear assistance.
They observe that permitting India to retain nuclear weapons while it receives the civilian nuclear benefits as nations that have forsworn weapons programs would set a harmful precedent.
New Delhi has long claimed that the NPT is discriminatory, and that the international community has instituted what it calls a nuclear apartheid against it.
Lugar made clear that an implementation of the nuclear deal requires Congressional consent, as well as modifications to non-proliferation laws and an American commitment to work with allies to adjust international regimes to enable full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India.
Thus, he noted that 'this committee, and ultimately Congress, must determine what effect the joint statement will have on US efforts to halt the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction'.
He then took a swipe at the administration, saying, 'To date, no associated legislative proposals have been offered by the administration,' and, 'likewise, there does not appear to be a specific Indian timetable to fulfill its obligations under the joint statement.'
Notwithstanding India's acquiescence in the statement to 'assume the same responsibilities and practices and acquire the same benefits and advantages as other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology', Lugar asserted that there are four key questions that the administration needs to answer and make sure Congress is satisfied with.
'First, how does civil nuclear cooperation strengthen the US-Indian strategic relationship and why is it so important? Second, how does the joint statement address US concerns about India's nuclear programs and policies? Third, what effects will it have on other proliferation challenges such as Iran and North Korea and the export policies of Russia and China? Fourth, what impact will it have on the efficacy and future of the NPT and the international non-proliferation regime?'
Lugar said he is looking forward to Burns and Joseph to lay out the administration's case, which, sources said, would have to be convincing enough if his influential committee were to endorse and approve the agreement.