Even before the US negotiating team led by undersecretary of state for political affairs, Nicholas Burns, arrived in New Delhi, word was out that Washington was “optimistic” that the coming round of Indo-US talks would see final closure on the 123 Agreement. Says Anja Manuel, counsel at the lobby firm WilmerHale and a state department consultant, “Washington is optimistic. Hard compromises will have to be made, but such talks are expected to be complicated.”
The deal’s prospects were always fair, but never definite. Four major areas of disagreement remained when Burns arrived. However, most observers in Washington and New Delhi agreed that the make-or-break issue was India’s insistence on the right to reprocess nuclear fuel.
This is exactly what the US Congress — ultrasensitive to proliferation issues, with the Democrats back in power and Iran’s nuclear drive dominating headlines — will scrutinise most carefully when the final agreement comes for vote. “Although the civil nuclear legislation passed overwhelmingly in the US Senate and the House of Representatives, congressional members could still vote down the deal if the 123 agreement language goes outside the parameters of the Hyde Act,” warns Lisa Curtis, South Asia analyst at the Heritage Foundation. The (Henry J) Hyde Act authorised the 123 agreement negotiations.
Bridging the reprocessing divide is what Burns’s negotiating team — which will include Mumbai-born foreign policy expert Ashley Tellis and chief technical negotiator Richard Stratford — sought to do with their Indian counterparts. Says Swadesh Chatterjee, head of the US-India Friendship Council, “The goal was to find a compromise that would allow Manmohan Singh and George W. Bush to go to the G-8 summit in Germany and close the deal.” The window of opportunity was so clearly defined that Burns had scheduled a family holiday two weeks hence before he arrived in India.
There was urgency too. With the US presidential elections warming up earlier than expected, the clock has been ticking on the deal. “The ideal timing would be for the 123 to be finished in the next month or so,” says Teresita Schaffer, South Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Indian-American lobbyists say it would be best for the 123 to be finalised, and the IAEA safeguards agreement and the Nuclear Suppliers Group approval to be done by the end of the year.
“There will be serious problems in getting this through Congress next year. The focus will solely be on presidential elections,” says Chatterjee. This could then see the deal held over until the next US election. However, Indian diplomats say a Democrat president could mean demands for a fissile material cut-off, or even the return of the test ban treaty.
This is about two countries that have not dealt with each other in decades. “A lot of this was about educating each other,” says Manuel. Schaffer agrees, noting that India and the US have never had bilateral talks on such a strategically important nature since the 1978-79 Tarapore nuclear fuel negotiations.