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N-deal: Rice gives Saran preview of testimony
Aziz Haniffa in Washington,DC | March 30, 2006 10:27 IST
Giving a clear indication that the Bush administration intended to put its best foot forward to push through the US-India civilian nuclear agreement, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in an extended meeting with Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran on Wednesday, gave a preview of the testimony she will present before the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 5 and the House International Relations Committee the following day.
Administration sources told rediff.com, that Rice, clearly sensitive to the remarks by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh earlier in the day, informed Saran about what she intended to do during her public testimony next week to alleviate some of the concerns expressed by lawmakers - a good many of whom still needed to be convinced that the deal is in the best interests of Washington's national security interests.
Some of these concerns were further exacerbated by an article in The Washington Post by former President Jimmy Carter who pilloried the deal describing it as dangerous and one that would only lead to the unravelling of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Carter's op-ed followed close on the heels of the concern expressed last week by former US Senator Sam Nunn, who is the co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, to send across a warning in an interview with The Washington Post that the deal will harm United States' vital interest in preventing nuclear proliferation and urged Congress not to approve the deal unless India acquiesced to some tough conditions.
However, administration sources acknowledged that as pointed out by Dr Singh, the ball was now clearly in the administration's court because under the terms of the agreement and the July 18 Indo-US Joint Statement, the US was obliged to convince Congress and the Nuclear Suppliers Group to approve the deal once India provided a credible separation plan.
Administration sources said Rice who left for Germany, France and the United Kingdom to consult with Washington's key European allies largely on the common strategy to isolate Iran, will also bring up the nuclear deal issue with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has expressed qualms about the agreement.
Meanwhile, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns expressed confidence earlier this week that several lawmakers will sponsor both the Senate and the House bills - introduced by Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and Congressman Henry Hyde, the head of the House International Relations Committee - once Rice testifies before both committees April 5 and 6 and answers lawmakers' queries.
Burns was up on Capitol Hill on Wednesday morning along with Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph, providing a classified briefing to members and staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on India's separation plan and the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement - a draft of which he has already provided to the Congress - that he and Saran hope to nail down before the foreign secretary returns to New Delhi on Friday.
Even as Burns and Joseph were briefing lawmakers, Saran hit the ground running with a meeting with Rice's chief counselor and confidante, Phil Zelikow, who along with Burns, were Rice's key aides who set the US-India civilian nuclear deal in motion as part of the strategic partnership between the two countries.
Burns, on his return from the Hill, hosted a working lunch for Saran and his delegation in the Henry Clay Room on the 8th Floor of the State Department, where he informed Saran of his meetings with members and staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and some of the concerns and ideas they had put forth.
According to sources, the ideas include a commitment from India to a unilateral moratorium on nuclear weapon testing and that India cease any further production of fissile material production.
The Bush administration has warned that some of the conditions Congress has been calling for are 'deal breakers' and Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen also reiterated in an interview with rediff.com last week that there was absolutely no chance of India accepting any amendment or condition to the negotiated deal and that any such amendment would 'make the agreement a non-starter.'
Also present during the working luncheon was Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher, who was in Vienna last week to push for the deal at the Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting and include it in the NSG's formal agenda in late May when its board of governors convenes. The NSG, however, was lukewarm to the US suggestion.
Administration sources said that Boucher and Saran had "compared notes" on the NSG meeting, since New Delhi has also been talking to some members trying to garner support for the deal, and sort of tallied up the yeas and the nays as it exists currently in order to guesstimate the chances of consensus.
Incidentally, Boucher leaves for Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and a couple of Central Asian states late Thursday.
On Wednesday evening, Saran was hosted for dinner at the 'I Ricci' Restaurant on 19th Street, Northwest, by former US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, whose firm Barbour.Griffith and Rogers International, is one of two lobbying firms working on Capitol Hill to push through the deal.
Earlier, in the week, Burns tried to explain away some of the conditions that some lawmakers have been calling for not as conditions but ideas and noted that "I would just say there is a difference between ideas or conditions that are meant to strengthen the agreement and ideas and conditions that are meant to essentially have us go back and renegotiate it."
Burns, however said he was not overly concerned over the NSG's cold reception to the US proposal, saying, "The reason why the India issue is not on the agenda of the board meeting for late May is because we are not quite sure when the Congress is going to act."
"But you can call the members of the NSG at any time. So if we miss the late May board meeting, you can call a meeting in July or August. So that is not an insurmountable area for us."
When asked about Hyde's statement about Congress looking at attaching 'possible conditions' if it is to amend current US law to facilitate the approval of the legislation, even as he introduced the bill on the request of the President, Burns said, "I have not seen chairman Hyde's statement, so I don't want to respond to it."
But he noted that "Secretary Rice is testifying before his Committee, so we will get a sense of what he is talking about, but he is a very important person in this debate and Secretary Rice has met him already to talk about the agreement and the testimony. We have already answered lot of questions for the HIRC (House International Relations Committee) staff and we will continue to do so."
"So we are looking forward to working with Chairman Hyde," Burns added.