India's nuclear energy chief will meet the International Atomic Energy Agency director on Wednesday, the IAEA said, after domestic opposition to pursuing a safeguards accord with the UN watchdog eased.
To launch a controversial nuclear supply deal with the United States, New Delhi must put its declared civilian atomic reactors under IAEA monitoring and then win the approval of a multilateral group controlling sensitive nuclear trade.
After months of resistance over fears the deal would weaken India's sovereignty, the communist allies of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government softened last week and said steps to seal the accord could be pursued on certain conditions.
IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said Indian Department of Atomic Energy chief Anil Kakodkar would meet IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei in Vienna, the agency's headquarters, on Wednesday. No official reason was given for the meeting.
Diplomats said it could pave the way for technical negotiations at expert level to set up inspections at Indian reactors to ensure they are used for peaceful energy only.
"Normally such negotiations take some time," said one senior UN official familiar with the process, speaking on condition of anonymity. Another said the process would take some weeks.
ELBaradei visited India in October but discussions on a safeguards pact did not start because of communist opposition.
It was earlier thought the IAEA's 35-nation Board of Governors might approve an India safeguards accord at its regular year-end meeting to be held on Thursday and Friday. But extended political wrangling in India dashed that prospect.
Race against time
US and Indian officials are anxious to get the 2005 deal ratified before the United States plunges into its campaign for November 2008 elections, which could sideline it indefinitely.
The India-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement aims to reverse a three-decade ban on Indian access to US atomic materials. Washington says it highlights a new strategic partnership that will promote international stability.
Disarmament advocates dislike the deal as New Delhi never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- only two other nations have shunned it -- and has tested atomic bombs.
They, like critics in the U.S. Congress, say the deal unfairly rewards India and undercuts a U.S.-led campaign to curtail the nuclear energy ambitions of nations like Iran, an NPT member that denies suspicions of a covert bid for bombs.
Communists who shore up Singh's coalition objected on the grounds that the pact would enable Washington to dominate India's long non-aligned foreign policy, and threatened to withdraw support if the deal went ahead.
On Friday, they relented after weeks of negotiations with government leaders and said the deal could proceed, noting that global clearances were needed for nuclear trade with nations other than the United States.
The pact will also require the consensus approval of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, which discussed it in Vienna last week but without conclusions since there was no India-IAEA deal yet, before ratification by the US Congress.