Congress is unlikely to give final approval this year to the Bush administration’s civilian nuclear energy deal with India, according to Senator John McCain, the influential Arizona Republican.

In an interview with the FT, Mr McCain said Congress needed to scrutinise the deal rigorously because of the precedent it would
set.

Critics say the deal would encourage nuclear proliferation by rewarding India, a country that has developed nuclear weapons while refusing to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

President George W. Bush sealed the landmark deal during a visit to Delhi this year. Under the agreement, the US would supply India with civilian nuclear technology in return for Delhi agreeing to open most of its nuclear facilities to international inspections.

“I am not saying I will oppose it, but I still would like to hear more argument in its favour,” said Mr McCain. “I understand our unique relationship with India … but when you carve out an exemption, then of course you run the risk of others wanting the same exemption.”

Although Mr McCain said his tendency was to support the deal, it was “unlikely” that Congress could give final approval this year because of the time needed to examine the agreement properly.

The White House has been pushing Congress to make the required changes in US law as soon as possible.

However, Republicans and Democrats are increasingly reluctant to approve the deal before details such as what safeguards India would negotiate with the International Atomic Energy Agency are hammered out.

Some critics argue that the deal will bolster India’s nuclear weapons programme because it will allow India to import uranium fuel, freeing up its domestic supply for use in its military programme.

“For what it’s worth, we have received assurances that India will not do that, but . . . this is taking a risk,” says Mr McCain.

If the Republicans retain control of the Senate in the November congressional elections, Mr McCain will become chairman of the Senate armed services committee in January.

One of his priorities, he says, will be to reform military procurement.

Mr McCain says: “[Military procurement] has become a national scandal. Nine of the 11 major weapons systems last year were over cost and behind schedule and received incentive bonuses. I don’t get it.”

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