India-US talks on N-deal fruitless

April 29, 2007

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NEW DELHI, April 28: India and the United States will try to iron out differences next week over a crucial civilian nuclear deal amid impatience by Washington over the slow pace of talks, officials said on Saturday.

Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon will be in Washington on Monday and Tuesday to hold negotiations with US Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns to propel the dialogue forward.

The talks have been stalled mainly over concerns in India that the agreement will seek to curtail the country's nuclear weapons programme.

India has a “very clear approach” on the deal, Menon said in a report tabled in parliament on Thursday, even as Washington expressed its unhappiness over the dialogue last week.

His comment came after US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington there was “some frustration on the part of the administration as well as Congress on the pace of these negotiations.” Indian officials tried to downplay the US remarks.

“When you hold talks, there are bound to be differences,” said a senior government official, who did not wish to be named.

The talks are to implement an accord struck in July 2005 giving India access to US nuclear fuel and technology for civilian use without requiring New Delhi to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty as required by US law.

But differences persist, chiefly over a clause which states the US would withdraw civil nuclear fuel supplies and equipment if India breaches its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing.

India atomic scientists and critics say the agreement will put restrictions on the country's nuclear weapons programme.

Ahead of the meeting, Menon sought to dispel the fears.

“Whatever we do with the US will not affect our nuclear strategic programme,” Menon said.

Experts warned that India must act fast on the deal.

“There is genuine concern about the delay. India is not the centre of the universe for them,” said G. Balachandran, Visiting Fellow at security think-tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

“They will get preoccupied with (presidential) elections next year,” he said. The nuclear policy expert said a likely outcome was a compromise on the wording of the agreement.

“The differences are over the consequences of nuclear testing. The Americans can't take away the right to test. It's a matter of reaching a compromise over the wording of the deal, not a compromise of interests,” he said.—AFP