The United States is set to push the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group to agree on a landmark nuclear deal with India despite objections at home and reservation among some nations.
Washington will ask the two-day NSG meeting beginning Thursday to grant an exception for India to receive atomic fuel and technology, even though it is not part of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, officials said.
The Germany-chaired NSG, the governing body for international nuclear commerce, must give unanimous approval to the waiver before the US Congress considers the deal.
"We are hoping to get as wide an approval as possible so that we can move on with regard to having this agreement for Congress to look at, but I don't want to get ahead of the suppliers group meeting," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said when asked if Washington was confident of unanimous NSG approval.
"That's our hope," he told reporters.
Phil Goff, New Zealand's minister for disarmament and arms control, told an Indian newspaper Wednesday that his country "has not arrived at a final position" on whether to approve the deal, but "like a number of countries, we do have reservations."
Austria, Switzerland, Ireland and Norway are among nations in the NSG cited to be sceptical of the deal, which was agreed to by President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005 as part of a strategic partnership between the world's top two democracies.
The Arms Control Association of the United States and several other non-governmental organizations and experts have called the proposal a "nonproliferation disaster" in an August 15 letter to Germany and other NSG members.
They want, at a minimum, the NSG to establish a policy banning the transfer of uranium enrichment and reprocessing technology to India and an immediate suspension of all NSG trade if India resumed nuclear testing.
Asked to comment on reservations by some NSG member nations, Wood said: "We think this agreement is very good for the United States and India and for the international community, otherwise we would not be pursuing this."
A US-proposed NSG rule exemption would allow India to acquire nuclear technology and material previously off limits to it following New Delhi's nuclear test explosion in 1974 and refusal to allow full-scope international safeguards, experts say.
The NSG may still not reach a final decision on the deal this week and could convene additional sessions to discuss the nuclear waiver for India, they said.
A key US lawmaker also has threatened to hold up the deal unless the nuclear supplier states adopt a provision terminating the deal if India conducted a nuclear test explosion.
Howard Berman, chairman of the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, said if the NSG did not impose such a condition, the deal could not be approved before Bush left office in January 2009.
A special US law governing the US-India deal calls for "the immediate termination of all nuclear commerce by NSG member states if New Delhi detonates a nuclear explosive device," said the Democratic legislator.
Any exemption of this provision for India "would be inconsistent with US law, place American firms at a severe competitive disadvantage, and undermine critical US nonproliferation objectives," Berman said.
Two other Democratic lawmakers said in an opinion piece in the New York Times Wednesday that the nuclear energy pact also threatened to rapidly accelerate New Delhi's arms race with Pakistan -- "a rivalry made all the more precarious by the resignation on Tuesday of the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf.
"This deal was foolish when Pakistan was relatively stable; with Mr Musharraf gone, an arms race on the subcontinent would likely be more difficult to control," warned Edward Markey and Ellen Tauscher.
Time may also not be on the Bush administration's side, as the US House and Senate will adjourn in late September ahead of the presidential and congressional elections less than two months later.
The Indian parliament endorsed the deal last month after a tense debate. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog agency, then approved key safeguards for the agreement to be implemented.