India and the US on Thursday began crucial talks on ironing out differences on a path-breaking civilian nuclear deal ahead of a meeting between their top political leadership in Germany next month.
The technical-level talks on the 123 agreement that will enable the resumption of US nuclear commerce with India after a 30-year gap were being held between senior officials of the two sides.
US Under Secretary For Political Affairs Nicolas Burns, who arrived in New Delhi on Thursday on a three-day visit, is to meet Foreign Secretary Shivshanker Menon for talks on the 123 agreement.
The talks will focus on four key areas: reprocessing of spent fuel, the technology for reprocessing, the right to continue testing, and uninterrupted fuel supplies.
Officials say there are major differences between India and the US on all four issues and intensive negotiations would be required if the text of the 123 agreement is to be finalised by the time Burns leaves Saturday for the G-8 Summit in Germany, on the sidelines of which Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George Bush will be meeting.
Burns' delegation includes his chief technical negotiator Richard Stratford and Ashley Tellis, a strategic expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and who had played a key role in structuring and implementing the India-US civilian nuclear deal.
The Indian delegation includes S. Jaishankar, Indian high commissioner to Singapore who has been involved in the nuclear talks earlier, and top officials of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).
The talks are being held against the backdrop of statements from the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) that supports the government from the outside and the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that parliament should be taken into confidence before the 123 agreement is announced.
Since parliament is not in session, the opposition leadership expects to be consulted before the deal is announced.
The NDA also wants assurances on two issues: that India's strategic programme remains untouched and that India retains control over its foreign policy.
Ahead of the talks, the external affairs ministry issued a statement on Wednesday saying Burns and Menon "will review bilateral relations and developments of mutual interest.
"The visit will also be the occasion for further discussions on the proposed bilateral civil nuclear co-operation agreement," the statement added.
Also on Wednesday, US Ambassador David Mulford said in a statement: "There is considerable work to be done on what is a very technical and detailed agreement. We want to finish as soon as we can and both sides are positive we can do this."
Menon had visited Washington last month for talks with Burns on the 123 agreement.
Indian and US technical experts then held two-day talks in London May 21-22 during which India clarified its concepts on key issues like nuclear testing and demand for access to reprocessing technologies.