Indian and US negotiators are carrying the search for a formula to seal their civil nuclear deal into a third day on Thursday after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stepped in to give a push.
Both sides declined to say if they were any closer to bridging their differences over the so-called 123 agreement as they kept talking through the day on Wednesday after an unscheduled meeting with Rice followed by another with US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley at the White House.
The Indian team including National Security Advisor MK Narayanan, Department of Atomic Energy Chairman Anil Kakodkar and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon met Rice, who had dropped a string of international visits to be at hand, after marathon talks the previous day apparently made little headway.
From the meeting with Rice, Narayanan went into a one-on-one session with Hadley. Rest of the team later joined them and then kept talking business over lunch and after as they had at a dinner Tuesday night hosted by Washington 's chief interlocutor R Nicholas Burns.
Meanwhile, as the talks continued, the White House and the State Department expressed keenness and a commitment to conclude the "very important" agreement that would resume nuclear commerce between the world's two largest democracies after 30 years.
"... as we've said all along, the civil nuclear agreement is very important to us and we want to see it successfully concluded," White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters.
"The United States has expressed its commitment and expressed its desire to reach an agreement, and we're sure that the Indian Government wants to reach an agreement," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack adding "the question is a matter of when and the timing of it. Certainly, there's no time like the present to reach a deal"
Asked if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's reported comment that the negotiations were in the "last leg" indicated that the two sides were ready to seal the deal, he said, "Well, we hope that's, in fact, the case."
Referring to the ongoing talks with Rice, Hadley and others at various levels, he said, "This is not an issue in which I do play-by-play analysis. We'll see where we are at the end of the day."
However, at the end of the day, the two foreign office teams led by Menon and Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs, were still talking. Another session of the open ended talks is scheduled to start at 9:15 am (6:45 pm IST) on Thursday.
Menon was backed at the formal rounds by Deputy Chief of Mission Raminder Singh Jassal, India's High Commissioner to Singapore S Jaishankar, an expert in nuclear diplomacy and Joint Secretary (Americas) Gaitri Kumar. The Department of Atomic Energy was represented by RB Grover.
Burns had Robert Stratford, director of the State Department's Office of Nuclear Security and Cooperation, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher, and Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, with him.
Narayanan and Kakodar, whose nod would be important to clinch the deal, were at hand along with the Indian ambassador to US, Ronen Sen, but did not take part directly in the formal talks at the State Department.
Sticky points continue to be India's insistence on its right to reprocess US nuclear fuel, conduct a test and guarantees for continued supply of fuel for the 14 civil reactors it has agreed to place under international safeguards under a separation plan. Eight other reactors designated military would not be subject to inspections.
India swears by the July 18, 2005 and March 2, 2006 joint statements by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush and considers such restrictions placed by the Henry Hyde act passed by the US Congress last December to approve the deal in principle as beyond their pail.
The US side, on the other hand has been pleading its unwillingness or inability to sidestep the Hyde Act as making any changes in the law now is considered an uphill task with the Democratic controlled Congress at loggerheads with President Bush though the India deal has broad bipartisan support.
To break the impasse, the Indian side has come up with an out-of-the-box proposal for setting up a fully safeguarded stand-alone dedicated facility for reprocessing US-origin fuel alone as Washington would neither permit reprocessing nor is it willing to take back the spent fuel.
The US Congress has to again approve the final 123 agreement in an up or down vote before the nuclear deal is implemented. India also needs to sign an additional protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and get the approval of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group.