US hopes to put “secret letter” row behind to get n-deal done

By Arun Kumar, IANS,

Washington : The White House hopes that India and the US could put the furore caused over the release of a so-called “secret letter” on Washington’s position on their civil nuclear deal behind them to get the “agreement done.”

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The US is also hopeful that India’s reiteration of its non-proliferation commitments would give “some positive momentum” to its efforts to get a nuclear suppliers ban on nuclear trade with New Delhi lifted.

“The questions that were made public reiterated our longstanding position. And we hope that this – we could put this behind us and be able to move forward and get this agreement done,” White House spokesperson Dana Perino said Friday.

Asked if President George W Bush was aware of the “secret letter” released by Howard L. Berman, Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, she said that such “questions for the record” are asked for from Congress to the administration are often not made public.

A Jan 16 State Department letter to Berman’s predecessor, the late Tom Lantos, covered response to 45 questions posed by members of Congress about the implementing 123 agreement.It assured the US Congress that the US would immediately terminate nuclear trade with New Delhi if it conducted a nuclear test.

“Let me just reiterate something that the State Department has said in the past couple of days, questions for the record – they’re also called QFRs – that are asked for from Congress to the administration are often not made public,” Perino said.

“Congress usually treats those as a direct communication between the executive branch and the legislative branch,” she added.

Later at his separate briefing, State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood drew attention to “a very significant statement” issued by the Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee about India’s non-proliferation commitments.

“The Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) representatives welcomed this statement. And we think the statement will give some positive momentum to the discussions in our efforts to bring about an exception for India,” he said as the nuclear cartel met in Vienna to consider India’s case.

In Vienna acting US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, John Rood, also said India’s gesture had added “positive momentum” to efforts to agree an NSG waiver.

Asked if the Indian minister’s statement actually added a binding commitment on the part of India or just restated its voluntary moratorium on testing, Wood said: “The statement refers to a number of commitments India’s made. I’ d recommend that you read the statement. It is, I believe, a public document.”

The official said a number of NSG countries have some questions about the India-US civil nuclear deal. “And the Government of India as well as the United States has tried to address some of those concerns. The meetings are ongoing in Vienna right now, and we’ll just have to see how those turn out.

“But obviously, we’re aware of those concerns that have been raised. And you know, the Government of India is trying to do that,” Wood said describing Mukherjee’s statement as “an attempt to address some of those.”

Asked to comment on reports that the Indian statement didn’t go far enough to allay NSG sceptics concerns about non-proliferation, Wood said: “Well, I think certainly the Indian efforts, our efforts, have been to try to assure people that this agreement is a very important agreement in terms of promoting the international community’s agenda with regard to non-proliferation.”

“So there will continue to be discussions about these concerns, and we and the Indians we will try to address them as best we can, he said.

US and India need a one-off waiver of NSG rules against nuclear exports to India, an atomic weapons state outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998, before their civil nuclear deal can be presented to the US Congress for final approval.

Washington is keen to secure an NSG exemption within days, as any delay may leave little time for the legislature to ratify the deal before it adjourns Sep 22 for November elections.