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India, US prepare for last push on 123

Diplomatic sources say the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation deal is a race against the US congressional calendar, reports Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

world Updated: Jun 16, 2007 02:10 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

The Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation deal is a race against the US congressional calendar, say diplomatic sources.

"We have time for one final push to get the 123 agreement finished," says a senior Indian official. There is consensus that the 123 agreement negotiations must be completed by the end of July.

The extremely technical 123 agreement is the operational part of the deal.

The issue that had deadlocked negotiations for months — India’s insistence that it must have the right to reprocess spent nuclear fuel — was smoothed over by India’s offer at the G-8 summit to build a new reprocessing facility placed under international safeguards.

However, several rounds of technical talks need to be held. For example, India and the US need to work out safeguard parameters for the new reprocessing facility. Actual safeguard implementation will be left to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"Our main problem is time," says an Indian official, referring to the completion of the 123 agreement.

Swadesh Chatterjee of the US-India Friendship Council and community lobbyist says, "The deal has to be signed and sealed by end July." The US Congress is largely in recess all of August.

Sanjay Puri of the US India Political Action Committee warns, "After Labour Day (the first week of September) the US will be in full presidential election mode. The first caucuses and primaries begin January 27 and the candidates will be clear by February 1." Chatterjee half-jokes Congressmen will begin to forget the deal by then.

Chatterjee says he is hoping for a legislative schedule that would see the 123 agreement completed by July-end, the IAEA-India safeguards agreement being completed in August and the Congress voting for the 123 in September or October.

Teresita Schaffer of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies says there is no actual deadline: "It is really a judgment about the increasing difficulty of getting complicated business through Congress as budget season and an election year approach." In theory, even if the deadline passed "we could keep trying".

Congress has indicated it will watch out for any violation of the 123 guidelines laid out by the Hyde Act it passed last December. Though the act does not forbid a reprocessing agreement with India, New Delhi’s demands was treated with suspicion since all of India’s existing reprocessing units are in the military sphere.

By offering to build a new unit, says nonproliferation expert Anupam Srivastava of the University of Georgia, "India offered a practical solution to square the circle of congressional concerns about diversion of nuclear material from the civilian to the military spheres."

US congressional leaders had agreed with the White House to allow a simple “yes and no” vote — without amendments or debate — on the 123 agreement. However, reprocessing rights was seen as violative of that understanding. "Nicholas Burns (the US State Department number three) saw the reprocessing right without safeguards as a deal-killer on Capitol Hill," says a major US corporate lobbyist for the deal.

This was partly a lack of trust. India’s Department of Atomic Energy saw reprocessing as something they would need 15 or so years from now to provide feeder stock for their hoped-to-be completed breeder reactor.

However, sceptics in Washington argued the possibility India was planning to use the reprocessed fuel for weapons was too high. There isn’t enough trust, says Srivastava, "India and US have gone from sanctions to reprocessing talks in just two or three years. This was a bridge too far."