As Manmohan Singh sought a vote of confidence in his government over the India-US civil nuclear deal, Washington reaffirmed its commitment to uphold its end of the historic agreement even as the White House praised the Indian prime minister's own commitment to it
"The United States is fully committed to doing everything it can to move this agreement forward to its completion," US State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday welcoming New Delhi's move to go ahead with the deal despite the threat to its coalition government.
Hailing India's approach to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) overriding domestic political impasses that had stalled the deal for over a year due to Left parties' opposition, he said: "This is really a signal that India intends to move forward with this significant strategic step."
While acknowledging that time was short for getting final approval in the US Congress before President George Bush, who looks at the India deal as a major foreign policy achievement, leaves office in January, McCormack said the administration was making all efforts to do so.
Apart from completing a safeguards agreement for its civil nuclear facilities with the IAEA, India also needs to secure approval from the 45-nation NSG, which governs global nuclear trade before the implementing 123 agreement comes up for final approval in the US Congress.
"We very much welcome India's step, look forward to talking about the issues not directly under our control, i.e., what we're going to do with the Congress, but in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as well as the IAEA," the spokesman said.
The administration had been in regular contact over the past several months with the Congress on the issue, but he did have a timeline for its submission to the legislature. But "a lot of that is under the control of the Congress, the House and the Senate," he said.
"We have also more recently been in contact with the (Capitol) Hill regarding moving this process forward so that we can fully implement the agreement," he added.
Reiterating the administration's commitment to the deal, McCormack said: "Certainly, you should know and the Indian people should know that our commitment to moving forward the agreement is a sign of the fact that this agreement is in our national interest.
"It also demonstrates the great respect we have for India, the Indian people, and the kind of relationship that we want to have with India in the future," he said.
Asked if the US got to see the India specific safeguards agreement for India 's civil nuclear reactors before it was submitted to the IAEA, McCormack parried: "Tell you the truth, I don't know," adding "We look forward to discussing the issue at the IAEA Board of Governors meeting."
Nor would he say if the US had seen anything in the draft that might be objectionable to Washington. "I know that this was an effort that the Indian Government was working with the IAEA directly," he said. "Certainly, as a member of the Board of Governors, we're going to have an opportunity to talk about these issues."
"This is really a signal that India intends to move forward with this significant strategic step in terms of not only a different kind of relationship, but in a different kind of relationship with some of these international organizations that are involved in civilian nuclear power," McCormack said.
"So this is a very significant step forward for India in terms of its development of civilian nuclear power, but also it's a very important step for the international non-proliferation regime," he said.
Asked if the US had given India any assurance about getting the deal completed this year before the Manmohan Singh took the risk of losing a vote on it, McCormack said while the US did follow the issue "quite closely" through its mission in New Delhi, but the decisions were Indian government's alone.
"The deliberations that were taking place were entirely within the Indian political system. And the decisions at which the Government of Prime Minister Singh arrived were fully, solely, the decisions of the Indian Government," he said.
"Of course we're interested in seeing this agreement move forward, but we also made clear that there were certain decisions that the Indian Government needed to make," the official said.
"They have apparently made those decisions," he said referring to India's approach to the IAEA. "And we, as a result, are fully committed to doing everything that we can to fulfil our end of this agreement."
Meanwhile, the White House has expressed appreciation for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's commitment to and willingness to move forward with the "historic" India-US civil nuclear deal despite the threat to his government.
"It's a historic agreement, this strategic partnership, and we think the initiative will help strengthen global non-proliferation efforts," White House spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters. "So it's a positive thing and we appreciate the commitment by the prime minister."
Fratto, however, would not confirm if President George Bush had assured Manmohan Singh during their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G8 summit in Japan that the US would help India get the deal through the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
"They did talk about the nuclear deal," he said. "But on that specific, that's not something I could confirm, but we do appreciate Prime Minister Singh's willingness to move forward with this deal."
Apart from completing a safeguards agreement for its civil nuclear facilities with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), India also needs to secure approval from the 45-nation NSG, which governs global nuclear trade, before the implementing 123 agreement comes up for final approval in the US Congress.
Previously US officials including, Nick Burns Washington's former key interlocutor on the nuclear deal, have committed to be "India's sherpa" at the NSG to push the deal through.
But the enabling Hyde Act that requires the Congress to be in session for 30 work days to consider the implementing 123 agreement may come in the way of its approval before the end of the year.
There are less than 40 work days available before the planned Sep 26 adjournment of the current House before the November election. Democratic leaders are also opposed to re-convening the current Congress for a so-called "lame duck" session after the November election, because they would not like to give Bush credit for the deal that otherwise has bipartisan support.
While critics of the deal, including some Democrats accuse the Bush administration of diluting US non-proliferation policy, those in favour have warned that if Congress fails to act this year, India can turn to other suppliers and the US nuclear industry could potentially lose billions of dollars in business.
Democrat Edward J. Markey, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the founder and co-chair of the House Bipartisan Task Force on non-proliferation, for one called the India-IAEA safeguards agreement as "worse than useless; it is a sham."
Expressing shock at what he called "the loopholes" in the agreement, he said: "Safeguards agreements should ensure a bright red line between civilian and military nuclear facilities. Instead, this agreement lays out a path for India to unilaterally remove international safeguards from reactors."
Contrary to everything the Bush administration has claimed about the US-India nuclear deal, if this safeguards agreement is approved, India will be allowed to make electricity one day and bombs the next," he alleged.
The Bush administration and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will need to answer to Congress as to why this safeguards agreement is the complete opposite from what they told us it would be, Markey said.