The US Congress today approved legislation allowing US shipments of civilian nuclear fuel to India, handing President George W Bush a victory on a top initiative and setting up a major shift in American policy.
Critics said the measure would spark a nuclear arms race in Asia by boosting India's atomic arsenal.
Following overwhelming endorsement yesterday in the House of Representatives, the Senate cleared the bill early today for Bush to sign into law.
It reverses three decades of American anti-proliferation policy and, supporters say, deepens ties with a democratic Asian power that has long maintained what the Bush administration considers a responsible nuclear programme.
Congressional approval provides Bush a rare foreign policy success as his popularity plummets over anger about the war in Iraq and as Democrats stand poised to take control of Congress from Bush's Republican Party when a new session begins in January.
Before civil nuclear trade can begin, however, several hurdles remain, including another congressional vote once ongoing technical negotiations on an overall cooperation agreement are settled between the two governments.
"India is a state that should be at the very centre of our foreign policy and our attention," Democratic congressman Tom Lantos said. The plan, he said, ushers in a new partnership "based on our shared objective of preventing the spread of dangerous nuclear technology to countries and groups that would use it for evil purposes."
Opponents said the plan threatened to ruin global efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and technology and sent a horrible message to other countries that might be looking to build their nuclear arsenals.
Democrat Dennis Kucinich said the United States "cannot speak out of one side of its mouth and tell Iran and North Korea don't you dare go in that direction" toward building a nuclear weapons programme and "on the other hand give a blessing to that same kind of arrangement" with a friendly India.
Another Democrat, Ed Markey, pointed to a claim by analysts that the extra nuclear fuel that the deal would provide could free India's domestic uranium for use in its weapons programme, setting off an arms race between India and rival Pakistan. The plan, Markey said, is a historic "mistake that will come back to haunt the United States and the world."
The legislation carves out an exemption in American law to allow US civilian nuclear trade with India in exchange for Indian safeguards and inspections at 14 civilian nuclear plants; eight military plants would be off-limits. Congressional action was needed because US law bars nuclear trade with countries, such as India, that have not submitted to full international inspections.
Additional steps remain. The two countries must now obtain an exception for India in the rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an assembly of nations that export nuclear material. Indian officials must also negotiate a safeguard agreement with the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Bowing to pressure from the administration and the Indian government, congressional negotiators watered down provisions in the bill that would have required that Bush certify that India has been cooperating fully on confronting Iran's nuclear programme before allowing civil nuclear cooperation. The bill instead requires that the president provide Congress with an annual report detailing India's efforts on Iran.