New Delhi: Sealing the much talked about civilian nuclear deal between the United States and India may still take time though the two sides have resumed talks on the pact.
Seen as the cornerstone of an emerging partnership between Washington and New Delhi after decades of Cold War wariness, the deal has been held up by disagreements over clauses that India says could limit its nuclear weapons programme and in the process, impinge on its sovereignty.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in that agreement,” US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said ahead of the talks with his Indian counterpart, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon.
However, he continued, “Some hard work has to be done.” Neither Burns nor Indian officials offered any details on what issues remain to be settled, but one of the biggest sticking points has been India’s displeasure with a clause that allows the United States to halt cooperation if New Delhi tests a nuclear weapon.
Some in India also fear the deal could limit India’s right to reprocess spent atomic fuel, a key step in making weapons-grade nuclear material and thus hamper its long-standing weapons programme.
American critics, meanwhile, say the plan would spark a nuclear arms race in Asia by allowing India to use the extra nuclear fuel, which the deal would provide, to free up its domestic uranium for its weapons programme.
The talks were the first bit of good news for the deal since an earlier round of high-level talks ended on May 1 with an optimistic pronouncement that Burns would be coming to India in the last half of May to finalize the pact, heralded as the first step in an emerging strategic partnership between New Delhi and Washington.
In the weeks since those talks ended, the optimism has given way to more neutral tones from officials on both sides. In fact, a meeting between Indian and US technical teams was set up last week in London because it looked certain that Burns would not be heading to India.
Officials did not say if Burns’ visit was prompted by progress at those talks. But he was coming days before US President George W Bush is expected to discuss the deal with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when the two meet next month on the sidelines of a G-8 summit in Germany.
The nuclear deal, agreed to by Bush and Singh in July 2005, would allow US to ship nuclear fuel and know-how to India in exchange for safeguards and UN inspections at India’s 14 civilian nuclear plants. Eight military plants would be off-limits.