India, US closer to nuclear deal after Cheney push

By Arun Kumar, IANS

Washington : A high level team from India has extended its stay here by a day raising hopes that an agreement on the proposed India-US nuclear deal may be close at hand after a push by US Vice President Dick Cheney.

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National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon are staying back to take one more crack Friday morning at the tough issues stalling the so-called 123 agreement to implement the deal, officials confirmed hours after the two met Cheney Thursday afternoon.

The decision to move the talks into a second extra day came amid signs that the two sides may be close to breaking the logjam with the influential vice president adding his weight to the political push given by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley.

While "no comment" was forthcoming from the Indian side, Washington's chief interlocutor Nicholas Burns, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs said, "We have overcome many of the outstanding issues. We just need to go the extra couple of feet.

"We are in an extra innings," Burns told reporters, using a baseball term. "We haven't given up and I'm very hopeful we might have an agreement," he said on the sidelines of an unrelated function shortly after the Indians' meeting with Cheney.

But even if they come to an agreement on the text in Washington, it will have to be referred to the leaders of the two countries in any case, Burns said as he went back to resume his marathon dialogue with Menon.

Narayanan, Department of Atomic Energy Chairman Anil Kakodkar, whose nod would be important to clinch the deal, and Indian ambassador to US Ronen Sen have stood by for consultations all along, but did not take part in the formal talks directly.

Cheney met Narayanan and Menon for about half an hour in the company of Sen a day after Rice dropped a string of international engagements to have an unscheduled exchange with the Indians Wednesday before they went to see Hadley at the White House.

Interventions from Cheney and Rice are reflective of President George W. Bush's keenness to get the nuclear deal done before he leaves office in January 2009 to score a major foreign policy success on par with Richard Nixon's 1972 opening to China.

Now going to the wire, the current talks – coming after several tortuous rounds of what is euphemistically called "steady progress" – are critical in the race to beat the clock with only a small window left to present the final deal to the US Congress for an up or down vote before it goes into another election cycle.

India also needs to sign an additional protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and get the approval of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group.

On the table is an out-of-the-box Indian proposal for setting up a fully safeguarded stand-alone dedicated facility for reprocessing US-origin fuel as Washington would neither permit reprocessing nor is it willing to take back the spent fuel.

There is no word on what solutions have been offered by either side to take care of other sticky points like India's insistence on its right to reprocess US nuclear fuel, conduct a test and guarantees for continued supply of fuel for the 14 civil reactors it has agreed to place under international safeguards under a separation plan. Eight other reactors designated military would not be subject to inspections.

Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte too Thursday underlined the importance of the nuclear deal that could open up a whopping $100 billion in opportunities for American businesses, according to the US Chamber of Commerce.

Speaking at the Business Council for International Understanding, he told a questioner from General Electric – one of the companies interested in opportunities offered by the deal – that "it's important to us and to them, and I think it would be an important signal about the importance of the relationship to the two sides.

"There's been a fundamental shift in attitudes between the two governments as compared to the Cold War period to the point where I think you could say that we are now developing a very strong friendship and even some kind of a strategic partnership.

"So bottom line, India is an important country. It's changing in the right direction and the relationships between the two governments and societies are getting much better than they used to be during the Cold War period," Negroponte said.

"And I think it's in that context that you have to look at this Civil Nuclear Agreement which would be just another way of cementing, if you will, and consolidating this process."