India and the US concluded three days of intensive discussions on Saturday on carrying forward their civilian nuclear deal, with Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon saying "considerable progress" had been made in narrowing differences on key issues.
"We have made considerable progress toward our goal...I am optimistic we will make a deal," an upbeat Menon said at a press conference after his talks with key US interlocutor Nicholas Burns on finalising the 123 agreement that will enable the resumption of nuclear commerce with India after a 30-year gap.
"Am I satisfied? Yes, I am. We have achieved what we set out to do in this round...We are much closer in understanding issues that divide us," Menon added.
The US embassy in New Delhi also issued a statement echoing the tenor of Menon's remarks.
"The American and Indian delegations had useful discussions and made some progress on the civil nuclear agreement. While there has been good cooperation, more work remains to be done to complete arrangements that will permit a civil-nuclear agreement to be finalised between the United States and India," the statement said.
"We look forward to a final agreement as it is indisputably in the interest of both governments," the statement added.
Menon held a third round of discussions Saturday with Burns, the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, who paid a courtesy call on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before leaving for Germany to attend the G-8 Summit from June 6-8.
India and the US were said to be keen on sewing up the 123 agreement ahead of a meeting between Manmohan Singh and US President George Bush on the sidelines of the summit, but Menon indicated no time-frame had been set for this.
"I will not set a date. That's not the right way. There are interlinked issues and they all affect each other," he explained.
These interlinked issues involve India right to continue testing nuclear weapons, the right to reprocess spent fuel and the right to receive uninterrupted nuclear fuel.
"There are still issues where there is a gap. We are understanding each other better. This is a normal part of the negotiating process," Menon contended.
While refusing to go into the specifics of his discussions with Burns, Menon pointed out that the Bush administration had informed India that there was nothing in the Hyde Act on the civilian nuclear deal that prevented it from honouring the obligations it had made in 2005 and 2006.
This was a reference to the joint statements issued after Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington and Bush's visit here laying down the parameters of the nuclear deal.
"There has been a political agreement. We are now giving a legal framework to this (through the 123 agreement). Let us first get the agreement and then we can say if there is anything in the Hyde Agreements that prevents the US from fulfilling its obligations. So far, he are moving forward steadily," the foreign secretary maintained.
Manmohan Singh has repeatedly told parliament there would be no deviations from the joint statements of 2005 and 2006.
India and the US have thus far held four formal rounds of discussions on the 123 agreement. Asked when the next round would be held, Menon replied: "We would like to do it quickly.
"The quicker the better, but there is no deadline. We need a little time to think over what has happened in the past three days and then move forward," he added.
Asked about Burns' oft-quoted remark that the 123 agreement was 90 per cent done, Menon retorted: "I don't believe in percentages."
Burns had arrived in New Delhi on Thursday. During his stay, he also met External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who handed him a letter inviting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to visit India.
"We hope this visit will happen in the next few months," Menon said.
Burns also met Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma, National Security Advisor MK Naryanan, Atomic Energy Commission chief Anil Kakodkar and former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, who is the prime minister's special envoy on the nuclear deal.
Indian and US officials also held technical level talks over the last three days.
The Indian delegation comprised 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).
Burns' chief technical negotiator Richard Stratford and Ashley Tellis, a strategic expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who had played a key role in structuring and implementing the nuclear deal represented the US side.