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US close to nuclear deal with India, says Burns

The US Undersecretary of State also said a few other confidential issues needed more preogress.

india Updated: Jan 28, 2006 11:48 IST

The United States is close to reaching a nuclear cooperation deal with India and may clinch it before President George W Bush visits there in March, a senior US official said on Friday.

Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed last July on an accord on civil nuclear energy that would reverse a nearly 30-year-old ban on atomic cooperation with New Delhi, which has tested nuclear weapons.

However details of that accord still have to be negotiated, including a plan to separate India's civil and military nuclear facilities.

The deal also has to be accepted by the 44-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group and the US Congress.

US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who visited India last week to negotiate details of the agreement, told reporters he was confident a deal would be reached soon.

"I think we have made a lot of progress over the last six months. I was not discouraged by my talks in Delhi last week," Burns told reporters.

"That (a deal) might happen before the President's visit."

Pressed further, he said: "It is my assessment, and I have been the one negotiating this for six months, that we are very close to an agreement."

In an interview on Thursday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the two sides were making progress but India had to make some "difficult choices" for the final agreement to be reached. She declined to give specifics.

Burns also said there needed to more progress on a few issues, which remained confidential. "I don't believe they are insuperable."

Iran vote

A related issue is whether India will vote with the United States when the International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors debates Iran's nuclear program at a February 2 meeting.

Washington and major European powers say Iran is developing a bomb and want the case referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions. Tehran argues its nuclear plan is for peaceful, energy purposes.

The US ambassador to India, David Mulford, said this week if India did not back the US position, the nuclear agreement could be in trouble. The remark upset New Delhi which rejected attempts to link the vote to the India-US nuclear cooperation pact.

Asked whether the United States believed it had India's support at the IAEA, Burns said New Delhi would make its decisions based on its own national interests.

Last September, India supported the United States at the IAEA in a vote that declared Iran had failed to comply with its international obligations.

First Published: Jan 28, 2006 02:32 IST