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Home > News > Report

N-deal: Hectic parleys on in make-or-break round

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC | July 18, 2007 11:02 IST
Last Updated: July 18, 2007 11:25 IST

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In what diplomatic observers have described as "a make-or-break" round of negotiations, senior US and Indian officials held several hours of intense discussions at the State Department on Tuesday in an attempt to seal the 123 Agreement that is vital to ultimately consummate the US-India civilian nuclear deal.

After the marathon session that was co-chaired by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns -- the chief US interlocutor of the deal -- and India's Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, the Indian side made its proposal to put forth a dedicated facility under safeguards as a means to alleviate some of Washington's concerns.

The US maintained that the 123 Agreement has to be hammered out within the parameters of the Hyde Act and that going back to Congress to make changes to this legislation would not be viable. Both sides adjourned after that and then resumed discussions over dinner hosted by Burns.

Joining the teams for dinner were the heavyweights in the Indian delegation, National Security Adviser M K Narayanan, who is fact leading the Indian mission and will meet with his US counterpart Stephen Hadley in the White House on Wednesday, and chairman of the Department of Atomic Energy Anil Kakodkar, whose seal of approval would be imperative to seal the agreement, and Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen.

Besides Menon, the Indian side comprised the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Indian embassy Raminder Jassal, India's High Commissioner to Singapore and the chief strategic and technical expert to the talks since its inception, S Jaishankar, joint secretary, Americas, Gaitri Kumar, and the Department of Atomic Energy representative R B Grover.

The US side led by Burns, also comprised Robert Stratford, director of the State Department's Office of Nuclear Security and Cooperation, who has been negotiating the 123 Agreement with Jaishankar and Kumar for several months, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher, and Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has been associated with the talks since its inception as a strategic adviser-cum-consultant to Burns.

In an exclusive interview with on the eve of the talks, Tellis acknowledged that "this is the last chance we'll have before we get into the problems with the (Congressional) calendar," and hence that "both sides are aware of the need to complete the agreement quickly."

"The fact that M K Narayanan himself is coming indicates a desire to reach agreement and move on to the next step," he said and noted, "there are still many things that need to be done before US-India nuclear cooperation actually materialises."

Officials remained tight-lipped and both teams, when not conferring with each other, were closeted in strategising and internal discussions on how far each side could be flexible to make the deal happen.

However, sources indicated that while the Indian side had held the goal-posts had been moved from the US-India Joint Statement of July 2005 and the separation agreement hammered out in the March 2006 agreement contained in the provisions of the Hyde Act with regard to reprocessing and testing, there had been agreement that trying to affect changes in the Hyde Act would be not only time-consuming and could necessitate new legislation that could result in the clock running out in the administration's effort to get the deal completed before President Bush leaves office.

According to the US, there was absolutely no possibility of the administration going back to Congress to affect changes in the Hyde Act and US officials had argued that it was quite possible to meet India's concerns within the parameters of the Hyde Act.

However, Indian officials had said their major concern at this time was an attempt to mandate prior consent by the US which could give Washington the prerogative to interrupt what India maintained under the Joint Statement would be a supply of uninterrupted supply of nuclear fuel.

Tellis in the interview before the talks had said there would be "no question of actually going back to Congress and asking for further amendments."

"What is more important, however, is that existing US law already gives the administration enough latitude to reach a satisfactory agreement with India, without the need for requesting Congress for further amendments," he had said.

Apparently, this was the same message Congressman Gary Ackerman, New York Democrat, and among the co-authors of the enabling legislation to facilitate the nuclear deal, had implied during a completely off-the-record roundtable on Monday with about 30 attendees, including himself hosted by Carnegie where Narayanan and Menon and the rest of the Indian team had engaged with some of the leading policy analysts and senior Congressional aides on a plethora of issues.

The issues included the US-India nuclear deal as well as issues of terrorism, Afghanistan, Pakistan, US-Pakistan relations, Bangladesh, internal security in India, and of course, the broader US-India relations, beyond the nuclear deal.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the talks were to "take stock of where we are negotiating the so-called 123 Agreement. This is a serious high-level delegation."

"It's really to try to make a push to get this agreement over the finish line," he said, and while acknowledging that "there are a couple of tough issues that we have left to resolve," predicted, "We believe that we can get a deal, we can get an agreement."

McCormack said, "I think it really comes down to a matter of timing: When is that going to get done? This meeting will provide us a good indicator as to the answer to that question: When can we get that deal done."

Meanwhile, both the US business and industry and the Indian-American community that had lobbied feverishly to get the enabling legislation approved in both the Senate and House and finally signed into law by Congress, were waiting with bated breath, hoping that this time around the 123 Agreement -- which has been in limbo -- would finally get done so that they can resume their activism to try and ultimately make the deal happen.

There have been fears both among the US industry and the community that the loss of momentum and the Congress heavily engaged in other issues like Iraq could shelve this deal if both sides don't move expeditiously to complete the 123 Agreement and send it up to Capitol Hill along with India's safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the consensus by the Nuclear Suppliers Group endorsing the exception offered to India -- a non-signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty -- by the Hyde Act.

Ron Somers, president of the US-India Business Council, told that the USIBC and "the core committee of the Coalition for Partnership with India (which includes the USIBC and the US-India Friendship Council, under the aegis of the US Chamber of Commerce) is meeting on Thursday itself, and will be reviewing talking points that we will convey on Capitol Hill, fortifying the logic in support of civilian nuclear cooperation with India."

He noted that "the entire membership of the USIBC, backed by the 3 million strong US Chamber of Commerce are actively engaged in support of this initiative," and said that Tom Donohue, the president and CEO of the Chamber "is personally committed to ensuring a successful outcome."

But Somers acknowledged that all of this depended on the sealing of the 123 Agreement and said, "To miss this opportunity will forego a partnership that is logical, based on shared values, and which align two great democracies for the 21st century."

He said that "the American business community, joined with the Indian-American community, appreciate the extraordinary opportunity in the strategic partnership between our two countries," and warned that "for these groups, delay will cost generations on both sides, and is far too important to let slip away."

Somers argued that "there is no option but to ensure a successful conclusion to what Prime Minister (Manmohan) Singh and President Bush so proudly announced to the world two years ago."

"We must all join together now at this moment to move history," he said, and spoke of how "the US-India partnership -- as embodied in this civilian nuclear initiative -- stands to change the destiny of the 21st century."

Thus, Somers declared, "it is imperative that we must help make this happen." 

Swadesh Chatterjee, a North Carolina entrepreneur and coordinator of the US-India Friendship Council, comprising Indian-American community activists, told, "You bet, this is certainly the make or break round, and this time, they can't fail because if they do, that would be virtually the end of the deal."

He said, "We don't want to change the Hyde Act, and of course, doing that, is not only going to be difficult but time-consuming and could entail fresh legislation and we don't want that."

Chatterjee pointed out that "there is nothing is the Hyde Act about prior consent, so there is no reason the administration can't meet India's concerns on this issue about uninterrupted fuel supplies."

He said that on July 1, on his urging that it was important to brief the community on the status of the discussions on the 123 Agreement and the chances of its being approved expeditiously so that the community could once again be mobilized to lobby Congress, Sen had hosted a meeting at his residence and assured the community activists that India was committed to the deal.

Sources have said that it was on Sen's urging that Dr Singh had agreed to send a high-level delegation led by Narayanan, including Kakodkar to make clear to the US that India was dead serious about making this deal happen and as such it behooved the administration to meet its concerns and complete the deal in accordance with the Joint Statement and separation accord reached by both sides in July 2005 and March 2006.