Washington: India and the United States said they neared completion on a crucial agreement on the civilian nuclear deal after four days of talks.
A joint US-Indian statement issue on on 20 July 2007 said, “We will now refer the issue to our governments for final review.”
An agreement would be a significant step forward for a deal portrayed by the Bush administration as a landmark strategic partnership with a rising Asian power. Several steps would remain, however, including approval by US lawmakers, before nuclear trade between the countries could begin.
A spokesman for the Indian Embassy, Rahul Chhabra, would not elaborate on the talks. The statement released by both sides provided no details. “The text of the agreement has not yet been finalized,” Chhabra said.
Senior negotiators had been expected this week to have two days of talks, ending on 17 July, but the meetings were extended, indicating, according to US officials, goodwill and progress.
Late last year Congress approved a proposal to ship US civilian nuclear fuel to India, a top priority for President George W. Bush. Negotiators are now working to settle technical details on an overall cooperation plan.
Talks on the plan have dragged on longer than either side had predicted, which has caused frustration among officials of both countries.
“There have been some tough issues. This is new ground for both of us,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey said earlier on 20 July, while the talks were still under way. “But I certainly would take issue with the notion that these talks are somehow in trouble, or that we don’t ultimately feel confident that we’ll be able to reach an agreement.”
A major sticking point has been US reluctance to allow India to reprocess spent atomic fuel, a crucial step to making weapons-grade nuclear material. Some fear that such an allowance would spark a nuclear arms race in Asia by allowing India to use the extra nuclear fuel that the deal would provide to free up its domestic uranium for weapons.
Several hurdles still must be cleared. The two countries must obtain an exception for India from the rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an assembly of nations that export nuclear material. Indian officials also must negotiate a safeguard agreement with the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
A final deal would mean US civilian nuclear trade with India would be allowed in exchange for safeguards and UN inspections at India’s 14 civilian nuclear plants. Eight military plants would be off-limits.
Congressional approval for nuclear cooperation with India is needed because US law bars nuclear trade with countries that have not submitted to full international inspections. India built its nuclear weapons program outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which provides civil nuclear trade in exchange for a pledge from nations not to pursue nuclear weapons.