WASHINGTON -- A leading Democratic lawmaker has made public a secret Bush administration document that says the U.S. has the right to immediately stop nuclear trade with India if it conducts an atomic test.
The U.S. statement on future Indian testing, contained in a letter kept private for nine months, appears at odds with Indian officials' insistence that a landmark U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation accord would not ban Indian nuclear tests.
Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is releasing the State Department's Jan. 16 answers to key congressional questions at a sensitive moment in the countries' pursuit of a deal that would reverse three decades of U.S. policy by shipping atomic fuel to India in return for international inspections of India's civilian reactors.
Members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group of countries that export nuclear material are gathering in Vienna today and Friday to discuss the deal. The Bush administration must get an exemption for India from the NSG's rules before Congress could ratify the proposal, which would allow the sale of nuclear materials to a country that has tested nuclear weapons but has refused to sign nonproliferation treaties.
In the letter addressed to Berman's predecessor as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the late Tom Lantos, the State Department said stopping nuclear trade with India would be "a serious step" and would come only under circumstances that include the detonation of a nuclear weapon.
U.S. assurances to India on the continuation of nuclear fuel supply, the letter said, "are intended to guard against disruptions of fuel supply to India that might occur through no fault of India's own." Those would include a trade war and market disruptions.
"The fuel supply assurances are not, however, meant to insulate India against the consequences of a nuclear explosive test or a violation of nonproliferation commitments," the letter said.
Some countries at the Nuclear Suppliers Group have strongly opposed an exemption for India. The Vienna talks this week are expected to focus on amendments to a U.S.-proposed draft statement that would allow India access to other nations' nuclear fuel and technology.
Democratic Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a vocal critic of the deal, said the Bush administration is privately assuring Congress that the U.S. will cut off nuclear trade if India tests a nuclear weapon while also lobbying the NSG for an Indian waiver that includes no such limitations. Markey asked in a statement whether the NSG would "agree to undermine the international nonproliferation regime because of the Bush administration's arm-twisting, or will they stand firm and insist on adding basic nonproliferation conditions to any nuclear trade with India?"
U.S. lawmakers had kept secret the State Department's answers to more than 40 questions about the agreement in response to an unusual request by the Bush administration. The request came as the nuclear deal faced strong political opposition in India. U.S. critics said keeping the answers secret was meant to stop publicity that could have killed an already wounded accord.
Berman supports nuclear cooperation with India, but last month he warned the Bush administration that it risks the collapse of the nuclear deal if it fails to push the NSG to accept conditions that would punish India for testing nuclear weapons.
His spokeswoman, Lynne Weil, said Berman was releasing the letter because he "wants to make sure his colleagues have all the relevant information before they are asked to make a decision" on the accord.
The Indian government said in an online statement Wednesday that it hoped an NSG waiver would be forthcoming. It said it had a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing.
Time is running out for U.S. lawmakers to consider the deal. Congress has only a few weeks of work in September before it is scheduled to break for the rest of the year to campaign for November elections that will determine the next president and the political future of many current members of Congress.
Supporters of the civilian nuclear deal say atomic cooperation with India would provide crucial energy to a democratic, economically vibrant country. Critics say it would ruin global efforts to stop the spread of atomic weapons and boost India's nuclear arsenal.
AP writer Matthew Rosenberg contributed to this report from New Delhi.
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