Amid anxieties about the fate of a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation between India and the US, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon on Sunday left for Washington for a crucial round of negotiations aimed at resolving sticky issues that continue to dog the 123 pact.
Menon starts his two-day visit to Washington on Monday with a meeting with Paula J Dobriansky, US Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs and Democracy, for a dialogue on global issues.
He will meet US Undersecretary of State for political affairs Nicholas Burns, Washington's chief interlocutor on nuclear deal, on Tuesday and make a determined effort to resolve differences over critical issues like India's right to test nuclear device and access to critical technologies relating to reprocessing, enrichment and heavy water reduction.
The thrust of Menon's negotiations will be to find a diplomatic way out through nuanced phrasing in the draft 123 text that can address India's concerns over these sensitive issues.
Ahead of talks, Burns has said India should "move quickly" to help complete a bilateral agreement to make the civil nuclear agreement struck on July 18, 2005 a reality.
In an article entitled "Heady Times for India and the US" in The Washington Post of April 29, Burns has described the civil nuclear agreement as the "symbolic and public centrepiece of our new partnership", and hoped that it would "help alleviate the chronic power shortages that hinder India's economic growth" and open up new business opportunities for American companies.
"When fully implemented in 2008, (the nuclear) initiative will permit American and international companies to begin peaceful civilian nuclear cooperation with India for the first time in more than a generation," he said.
Burns is also expected to come to India next month. If these two meetings do not resolve outstanding differences, it will then be a political call for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George Bush when they meet in a Germany resort in June on the sideline of the G8 summit.
The US is pushing hard to convert a voluntary moratorium by India on nuclear testing and the production of fissile material into a permanent binding one - a condition that is not acceptable to New Delhi as enunciated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in parliament many a times in debates on the nuclear deal over the last two years.
The US is also insisting on a right-of-return clause for nuclear equipment and fuel sold under the agreement. This is not acceptable to India as it runs counter to the lifetime fuel supply assurances given by the US.
Washington's insistence on fallback bilateral safeguards in addition to the IAEA safeguards is also not acceptable to New Delhi.
Other issues that remain to be ironed out are the sequencing of the 123 negotiations and India's safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency - as well as the timing of Nuclear Suppliers Group's decision to amend its guidelines in favour of global civil nuclear commerce with India.
Named after Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act, the 123 pact will have to win backing of the 45-nation NSG before India can resume global nuclear commerce after a gap of over three decades. It will be the sole legal document defining civil nuclear commerce between India and the US.