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N-deal: Bush administration sees sliver of hope

June 20, 2008 01:32 IST

The Bush administration, the US business lobby, and cheerleaders like Dr Ashley J Tellis -- one of the negotiators of the US-India civilian nuclear deal and now a strategic affairs adviser to Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain -- buoyed by what they see as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's decision to go ahead with the deal, come what may, have resurrected themselves from the doldrums and now see a sliver of hope that the deal could still be consummated before the US Congress adjourns for the year.

In the wake of the movement in recent days with speculation rife that Prime Minister Singh is willing to go ahead with the deal even if the Left allies in the coalition withdraw their support, the Bush administration -- which some perceived was a totally unrealistic statement, but which sources said was consequent to indications from New Delhi that there would be movement on the deal from its current moribund status -- vowed to work to complete the deal even if it went down to the wire and President Bush's last day in office.

State Department's Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey who reminded that Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Richard Boucher had earlier warned that if the deal is not wrapped up by the end of May by India and sent back to the US Congress it was unlikely to be consummated this year, refused to acknowledge that the threshold had expired and that the deal would not have to be left for the new administration.

"I guess we could all get out our calendars and figure out how many more days Congress is actually in session between now and January 20, and how likely it would be that should an agreement be reached at a certain point, you could get it on the calendar and move it to vote and have those votes take place in time, and all that other great stuff," Casey acknowledged.

But, he asserted, "The bottom line is, from now until January 20, we will continue to work to support this agreement. We will continue to encourage the Indian government to approve it. And if such time, it is approved, whether that it today, tomorrow, or January 19, we will make every effort to move it through Congress."

However, for all the optimism that it could still be completed and perhaps give President Bush the only positive foreign policy legacy to savour when he leaves office and lolls in his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Casey said, "We would certainly hope that the next administration, whoever comes to office in January, would also see the agreement as something fundamentally in America's interest and want to move forward with it as well."

Pressed on the contention by many that the "clock has run out," Casey somewhat testy, argued, "I would say we have fewer days now to do it than we did yesterday, and few days now than we did two days before it. But, I really can't say for you, you know, how likely or less likely it is -- whether the chances went down half-a-percent, one percent or zero percent between yesterday and today."

Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who was associated with then under secretary of state for political affairs Nicholas Burns -- the chief US interlocutor of the deal -- in negotiating the agreement, told, "I would not rush to say that I am optimistic, but I can honestly say that I am hopeful."

In the wake of Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee and National Security Adviser M K Narayanan leaving for Vienna for what many believe is to nail down the safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Tellis, held out, "We can still make significant progress for several reasons. Prime Minister Singh is deeply committed to completing the deal. The people of India, by all accounts, recognise that it is in their national interest both to secure access to new energy sources and to remove the debilitating technology denial burdens that India has been afflicted by since 1974."

"President Bush, the US Congress, and key countries in the international system, are also eager to complete this initiative when India shows itself ready to move forward," Tellis added.

Tellis, who has warned on several occasions that it would be "a historic blunder," if the deal were not to be consummated, how pointed out, "Consider the following: The US Congress, with a bipartisan majority, has amended US law to permit the resumption of civilian nuclear cooperation with India. This is landmark legislation that carves out an exemption for India and India alone."

He explained, "It embodies the fundamental permissive condition that allows any administration -- either the current one or a future dispensation -- to begin nuclear cooperation with India when the remaining steps in the process are completed."

"This reality will not change, whether the remainder of the process is completed during the Bush term or thereafter," Tellis added.

But he reiterated, "That we have come this far is a tribute to the president's and Prime Minister Singh's courage and vision. And it is equally a tribute to the US Congress, which despite its initial reservations, opened the doors wide to a new civilian nuclear partnership with India because of the strategic benefits that underlie such an agreement."

So, taking on those who say the deal is 'dead,' Tellis countered that saying the deal is dead, really means "precious little, because whether the process is completed during the Bush term or not, the critical legislative constraint to initiating civil nuclear cooperation with India -- the old constraints encoded in the Atomic Energy Act -- have been permanently removed."

But he came back to saying that while he is "ever mindful of the challenges," he believed that "we can still make this work. The president has stated clearly that the administration will do its part whenever India is ready, and the prime minister's convictions in this regard, still give me reason to hope."

Obviously, this reason to hope was also reflected in US-India Business Council president Ron Somers, who said that they had decided to retain the high-powered Washington lobbying firms hired solely to push the deal through Congress for a few more months in anticipation that the government may have decided to take on the Left and whatever the opposition, lob the ball back into the US court.

"We will continue to have local teams on the ground here that we retained -- professional advocates -- Patton Boggs is on our retainer as well as Stonebridge International," Somers said.

"We will also continue to meet with staff on Capitol Hill, we will continue to meet with the campaign staff of the presidential candidates, indicating that the three big pillars -- the environmental issue, how this is going to actually help global warming, on how the need for energy security is an imperative for all nations and the fact that this is actually going to stem nuclear proliferation by virtue of the fact that India has agreed by virtue of the agreement to bring its civilian nuclear facilities under the safeguards agreement of the IAEA and to join the international community in this effort."

"So, we will continue to meet with representatives on Capitol Hill as well as the campaign staff to discuss these attributes," Somers said, adding, "and to impress upon them that this is a plus, plus, plus."

"Our issue is that when the ball comes back into our court, we must be prepared to be able to move very fast forward on getting the 123 Agreement ratified up on Capitol Hill by both houses of Congress by an up or down vote."

"This can happen even in this Congress and therefore we continue to assist in getting that information up to the Hill," Somers said, but reiterated, "the ball is in the Indian court and we're preparing ourselves that when the ball comes back to us, we can move fast forward."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC