Washington : Encouraged by “extensive progress” on the bilateral civil nuclear cooperation pact with India, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns will be going to New Delhi later this month to reach a “final” 123 agreement that will pave the way for resumption of nuclear trade between the two countries.
India’s Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon held discussions with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Burns over the last two days to resolve key issues like nuclear testing and transfer of technologies relating to reprocessing of US-origin spent fuel.
Going by statements coming from both sides, the two countries still have “some issues to settle” but appeared to have made “considerable progress” to reach a final agreement on the 123 pact that will pave the way for resumption of civil nuclear cooperation between them after more than three decades.
“The discussions were positive and the US is encouraged by the extensive progress that was made on the issues,” State Department spokesperson Sean Mccormack said in a statement.
“We look forward to resolving the outstanding issues in the weeks ahead. In that regard, Under Secretary Burns will visit India in the second half of May to reach a final agreement,” he added.
The Indian side also appeared hopeful and positive about achieving a breakthrough to finalise the 123 agreement, named after section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act, that will be the sole legal document governing nuclear commerce between the two countries.
“We still have some issues to settle. But we will settle them soon,” Menon told journalists Tuesday when they asked him about the “frustration” senior officials felt in Washington regarding the pace of the negotiations.
“… All I can say that we have had a productive discussion with US officials and there has been considerable progress on the issue. We would be expecting Burns in India later this month where we hope to continue the discussions,” he stressed.
Menon did not give a specific timetable for the deal to be inked, but said instead that both sides would like to settle all outstanding issues and sign the agreement as soon as possible.
“I am not willing to say where we stand today as regards to when the document will finally be signed,” he said. “What I can say is that there is a lot of keenness on completing this deal soon.”
On the issue of Iran and US objections to India’s relations with Iran, Menon said New Delhi was not doing anything to contravene any UN Security Council resolutions.
“Our relationship with Iran is just as any two sovereign states would have with each other,” he said.
India has two core concerns about the 123 agreement: firstly, it does not want the pact to include a ban on nuclear testing as it already abides by a voluntary moratorium on testing and the production of fissile materials; secondly, it wants access to technologies relating to reprocessing of US-origin spent fuel.
On both counts, the US is not ready to concede much ground, but eventually Washington has to find ways to accommodate India’s sensitivities on these issues.
Any lack of agreement on these issues could jeopardise the nuclear deal and put the present ruling coalition in India in a spot as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has assured parliament that New Delhi will not compromise its deterrence and its indigenous three-stage nuclear energy programme while negotiating the 123 pact with Washington.
Washington has insisted on inserting a clause in the 123 pact that envisages termination of all civilian nuclear cooperation between New Delhi and Washington should the former conduct a nuclear test.
The US is also insisting on a right-of-return clause for nuclear equipment and fuel sold under the agreement. This is not acceptable to India as it runs counter to the lifetime fuel supply assurances given by the US.
The 123 pact has to be approved by both houses of the US Congress by an up-and-down vote and the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group will also have to approve the deal before India resumes civil nuclear trade with the US and the world.