Friday, July 11, 2008

U.S.-India Nuclear Deal Update

Since last summer, when India and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) negotiated a safeguards agreement, the U.S.-India nuclear deal has been in limbo due to opposition from Indian political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian Communists. The Communists, who have provided the Congress-Party led governing coalition with its parliamentary majority for the past four years and see the deal as a threat to an independent Indian foreign policy, threatened to withdraw from the coalition government led by Prime Minister Singh if India pushed ahead with the deal.

Until last week, meetings within India's governing coalition failed to produce an agreement. However, a breakthrough this past weekend saw Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh secure the support of the Samajwadi Party for the deal. Bolstered by the Samajwadi Party’s support, it was reported on Wednesday that Singh had submitted the safeguards agreement to the IAEA’s Board of Governors. In response, India’s Communist parties formally ended their support for the governing coalition and called for a no-confidence vote in Parliament. Having secured Samajwadi’s backing, the Singh government is likely to survive a no-confidence vote, thereby avoiding the possibility of early elections.

Despite this breakthrough, it is not clear if there is enough time to complete the remaining steps necessary to implement the deal before the end of 2008. There are reports that the IAEA Board of Governors is considering a special meeting on July 28 to discuss the safeguards agreement, after which the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) must exempt India from international rules barring nuclear trade with non-NPT signatories. Once these two steps have been completed, the U.S. Congress will be free to vote on the final U.S.-India 123 agreement.

If the IAEA Board of Governors ratifies the safeguards agreement, which it is expected to do on or around July 28, the NSG would have to give its approval to allow changes in international rules governing the export of nuclear material and technology. An ad hoc meeting would have to be convened and at least two sessions would be required for NSG consideration of the changes.

According to Lynne Weil, spokeswoman for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, "At this point, both [the IAEA and NSG actions] have to take place in the next couple of weeks" in order for the deal to be considered by Congress. This is due to the fact that the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 requires that Congress be provided with at least a 90-day (counted as days of continuous session of Congress) review period to consider the 123 agreement (including a 45-day Committee review period). Congress is scheduled to adjourn on September 26 and both Sen. Majority Leader Reid and House Speaker Pelosi have so far indicated that there will be no lame-duck session.

Given that the IAEA isn’t scheduled to take up the safeguards agreement until the end of July and the NSG may need until September or October to reach a decision, there does not appear to be enough time left on the legislative calendar for Congress to take up the 123 agreement before the Bush administration leaves office. If the deal moved forward now, Congress would have to agree to forego this 90-day timeframe for consideration and instead take up the agreement in a very short time-frame before adjournment. However, even in the event of a lame-duck session, the 90-day review period would not be possible at this point.

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