India, US finalise 123 accord for n-deal

By Arun Kumar, IANS

Washington : India and the United States have finalised an agreement to implement their path-breaking civil nuclear deal two years after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush set out on their "historic initiative".

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The dramatic announcement of the accord Friday after four days of hard negotiations came two days too late for the second anniversary of the two leaders' joint statement of July 18, 2005.

A rather bland, carefully drafted joint press statement issued Friday merely said the two sides "are pleased with the substantial progress made on the outstanding issues in the 123 agreement. We will now refer the issue to our governments for final review."

But officials were quick to assert that the agreed text was final and only awaited review at the political level confirming that all the sticky issues had been resolved following a high-level push from the White House.

"Both the United States and India look forward to the completion of these remaining steps and to the conclusion of this historic Initiative," the statement concluded indicating that they had finally wrapped up what was obviously planned to be a birthday package.

The talks were supposed to end Wednesday after a long session between India's National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan and his US counterpart Stephen Hadley, but with no breakthrough in sight Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stepped in to provide political impetus to the talks.

It was finally a political push from the top provided by a meeting with US Vice President Dick Cheney late Thursday that clinched the deal sending negotiating teams led by Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns into what the latter called "extra innings" using a baseball term.

Still unable to wrap up the deal by nightfall, Menon who was all set to head home that night missed his flight and decided to stay back. So did Narayanan and Department of Atomic Energy Chairman Anil Kakodkar, whose nod was considered a must to clinch the deal.

That an agreement was close at hand now became apparent, but when it did come it took scribes expecting another long day by surprise. That the joint statement claiming only "substantial progress" did not capture the import of the announcement did not help matters any.

The joint statement also did not say what were the couple of tough issues stalling the agreement or how they were resolved. Nor was an official comment forthcoming from either side.

But India apparently put on the table 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.

Sticky points included 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.

High-level interventions from Cheney and Rice were reflective of President 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.

Coming after several tortuous rounds of what is euphemistically called "steady progress" – the just concluded round of talks was considered 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.

Meanwhile, as Menon and Burns were negotiating the last "couple of feet" to borrow another Burns phrase in their "constructive and positive" dialogue, the White House spokesman Tony Snow voicing Bush's wish declared: "Obviously we are working with the government of India on something that is of intense mutual concern to us. We want to get it done.

"Congress has expressed support for the president's strategic partnership with India to work for the full civil nuclear energy cooperation that was part of the Hyde Act last December," he told reporters.

"So we're continuing our conversations in support of fulfilling that strategic partnership, and when completed it obviously will make available efforts both in terms of energy security and non-proliferation – what this will do, of course, is bring India into the non-proliferation regime," Snow added.

Separately at the State Department, deputy spokesman Tom Casey said going into "extra innings" indicated that "both sides are very committed to reaching an agreement here.

"We believe that concluding a 123 agreement is something that is vital to being able to fully implement the US-India civil nuclear accord and is something that is important for both countries," he said.

It was also important, Casey said for "reinforcing the non-proliferation regime through an advancing dialogue between the United States and India as well as India's dialogue with the IAEA in terms of bringing some of their facilities under inspection and under the non-proliferation regime".

"Lack of an announcement of an agreement today should not be taken as anything indicating that we won't ultimately be able to have a deal and be able to move forward on this," he said by way of an escape clause hours before the joint statement.

"It's clear that both countries have the goodwill necessary to do this, are willing to work with one another to achieve an agreement, and we're certainly hopeful that we'll get one in the very near future," he added.

Asked why the US was not prepared to discuss the issues involved, Casey said he could not do a "play-by-play commentary" on ongoing diplomatic negotiations but an agreement when concluded will be a public document open to scrutiny and full Congressional review.

"Certainly there are issues involved here that require us to make sure that we're in compliance with US law, and I can assure you Nick Burns and the other folks negotiating this are going to make sure that whatever agreement is ultimately reached is in full compliance with our legal obligations. That's part of what we do," he said.