Bush to sign n-deal Wednesday, 123 pact Friday

By Arun Kumar and Manish Chand, IANS,

Washington/New Delhi : With US President George W. Bush expected to sign the bill enabling civilian nuclear cooperation with India later Wednesday, New Delhi and Washington are readying to ink the 123 pact later this week – the final step that will reopen atomic trade between the two countries after a gap of over three decades.

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“The 123 pact will be signed Friday afternoon or Saturday morning,” a highly placed official source told IANS in New Delhi, pleading anonymity.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee will formally ink the 123 agreement that will implement the landmark atomic pact accord allowing trade in nuclear reactors, fuel and technologies between the two countries.

Mukherjee, who has played a key role in bringing the nuclear deal to fruition, leaves for Washington Thursday. He returns to India Sunday.

Both New Delhi and Washington have, however, yet to make a formal announcement about the signing of the 123 pact.

“Let me just say the agreement will be signed at some point by both sides. I just can’t tell you when at this point, but the agreement will be signed,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters in Washington Tuesday.

The 123 pact will overturn the ban imposed on India after it conducted its first nuclear test in Pokhran, described by New Delhi as a “peaceful explosion”, in 1974.

The two countries were earlier planning to sign the 123 pact, the sole bilateral document that defines terms of nuclear trade between them, during Rice’s day-long visit to India Saturday.

However, the pact could not be signed as India insisted that it first wanted Bush to sign a bill to ratify the India-US civil nuclear deal and address some of its concerns on fuel guarantees in his presidential signing statement.

Rice, who was keen to sign the deal during the visit, however, had to put off the much-awaited signing and attributed it to “administrative details” which remained to be sorted out.

With Bush signing the bill enabling civilian nuclear cooperation with India in Washington later Wednesday, that hurdle will be removed. Bush’s signing statement is expected to address some of India’s concerns.

The state department, however, chose to be more circumspect on this sensitive issue of India’s concerns.

Asked if India had conveyed to the US that it would sign the nuclear deal once Bush has signed the statement, Wood said: “We’re trying to work out, you know, a date whereby a signing can take place. But again, I would just say to you the agreement is done and the agreement will be signed.”

During her trip to New Delhi, Rice, a key US interlocutor for the nuclear deal who has relentless championed nuclear entente with India, had emphasised that there are “no open issues” left in the way of the signing of the 123 pact.

The White House has invited lawmakers, prominent members of the Indian American community, and leading businessmen of the two countries besides officials and diplomats, who all played a major role in pushing the deal, for the signing ceremony in the East Room at 2.50 p.m. Wednesday (12.20 a.m. IST Thursday).

The signing of the 123 pact will mark the culmination of over three years of tortuous negotiations aimed at giving India one-time exception from the global rules which forbid nuclear trade with a country which has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In a historic decision, the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) Sep 6 adjusted its guidelines to resume nuclear commerce with India, paving the way for the fruition of the India-US civilian nuclear deal.

Bush is likely to allay India’s concerns regarding nuclear fuel assurances, technology transfers for uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel with a signing statement as he did over certain “extraneous and prescriptive” provisions in the Hyde Act in December 2006.

US presidents have often used such signing statements to interpret a law the way they choose without taking the extreme step of rejecting a bill outright with a veto. Usually these are quietly listed in the Federal Register recording all executive actions without a public announcement.

After signing into law the legislation passed by Congress approving the 123 agreement, Bush is also required to certify that the accord is consistent with US obligations under the NPT.

He also has to certify that it is the policy of the US to work with members of the NSG to further restrict transfers of equipment and technology related to uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

After these certifications, India and the US will exchange diplomatic notes pursuant to Article 16(1) of the 123 Agreement, the last procedural step that will turn the historic nuclear deal envisioned by Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on July 18, 2005 into reality.