India needs to place its safeguards agreements before the IAEA board of governors in March if the nuclear deal is to “make it past the finish line”, said the US State Department’s number three Nicholas Burns. “There is not all the time in the world for this deal,” he said.
In his last official interview, the outgoing undersecretary of state for political affairs stressed, “we are at a critical time” in the India-US civilian nuclear agreement. “We’ve had three years of negotiations and meetings between the two governments. We need to internationalise the deal, bring it before the IAEA board of governors and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and have it passed by the US Congress. There is a timeline at work here,” Burns said hours before leaving his Foggy Bottom office and ending his 26-year career in diplomacy.
The agreement, Burns said, was wholly in India’s “national interest”. It would “deliver India from 30 years of isolation, lead to fair and egalitarian treatment of the country in the nuclear field and allow India to improve relations with France, Russia and Britain -- countries that want to cooperate with India.”
Burns’s plea for the Manmohan Singh government to finalise the safeguards agreement follows similar statements by Ambassador David Mulford, Senator Joe Biden and Pentagon chief Robert Gates. When it was pointed out that the US cut-off date had once been January but even Biden was now talking about June, Burns responded, “Back up the timeline from (Biden’s June deadline), this means the Indian government has to move to the board of governors by March.”
Burns doubted the agreement would be “replicated” by another administration. He added that “the deal was put together in such a careful way that if it is not voted or passed during the Bush administration’s term, I think it will most likely face some sort of reconsideration by a future government. The time to act is now.”
It is expected that a Democratic administration will demand the agreement include an Indian fissile material cap and signature to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Burns was confident about completing the next steps in the process. “With the US as the backer of India, I think we are likely to get the support of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This will be a complex process, incorporating many different negotiations and will not happen overnight. I am also confident of approval from the IAEA board of governors once India negotiates a safeguards agreement that is approved by (IAEA chief) Mohammed ElBaradei.”
The failure of the nuclear deal would not impair India-US relations as they were very “broad-based” and on an “upward trajectory” but the consensus in the US and the international community to end 30 years of India’s nuclear isolation could “break down” in the coming months, he said.