Narayanan, Stephen Hadley likely to lead delegations but Indian officials warn there is no slack to cut on the Indian side.
30 June 2007
India, U.S. looking at mid-July for 123 talks
NEW DELHI: The next round of negotiations on the India-U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement — also known as the 123 Agreement — is slated for the middle of July with both sides seriously considering upgrading their delegations to the National Security Adviser level.
Though a final decision on the dates and composition of delegations will be taken over the next few days, it is likely that National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and his United States counterpart, Stephen Hadley, will steer their teams when they meet in Washington two weeks from now to surmount the obstacles in the path of the nuclear deal.
The perception on both sides is that these obstacles cannot be resolved at the purely technical level and will require the involvement of politically-empowered officials. Indeed, India, which delayed sending several key members of its negotiating team to foreign postings in the expectation of a quick agreement, has now allowed them to rotate out. Hamid Ali Rao, Joint Secretary in the Disarmament Division of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), to Geneva as Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament and Santosh Jha, Director in MEA’s Americas Division, will take up a new assignment in Sri Lanka next week.
According to senior Indian officials, matters in the 123 Agreement remain more or less where they were when the two sides reached an impasse in Delhi earlier this month. In his meeting with Mr. Hadley at Heiligendamm on June 8, Mr. Narayanan sought to break the impasse by suggesting that India could place a purpose-built standalone reprocessing facility under IAEA safeguards for handling U.S.-origin spent fuel.
Under the March 2006 separation plan, India had offered to place its existing Power Reactor Fuel Reprocessing (PREFRE) facility at Tarapur under “campaign mode” safeguards, meaning it can be monitored or inspected only when safeguarded fuel is reprocessed there. But once several imported 1,000 MWe reactors are up and running, the quantum of safeguarded spent fuel would require a dedicated new reprocessing facility or even facilities, say officials. Nevertheless, the fact that India is willing to expand the number of its safeguarded fuel cycle facilities beyond what it agreed to do in 2006 is something the Bush administration can cite favourably on Capitol Hill, say Indian officials.
However, the officials also acknowledge that the Heiligendamm proposal was “ahead of the curve” in that it was basically suggesting a more palatable recipe for a dish the American side has so far said it is simply not interested in eating. “It’s not as if their answer to our request for reprocessing was ‘Yes, but’,” said an official. “If that were so, it makes sense to find ways of addressing that ‘but’. But unfortunately, their answer has simply been ‘no’.”
Though Mr. Narayanan may head India’s delegation to Washington, officials are clear that there is no slack on the Indian side as far as compromising on the right to reprocess or securing cast-iron fuel supply guarantees are concerned.
The Indian side also has no intention of negotiating to an artificial deadline, say officials. “First, we were told this must be finished by April, then end of May, then August. Now Condi [U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] is talking about completing this by the end of the year,” said one official. “Please understand, we are not playing for time. The deal is stuck not because of delays but on the issue of implementing commitments that were made in July 2005 and March 2006.” He added that once the Bush administration decided it was willing to implement its commitments, the agreement could be “finished in hours.” “But if they decide not to, playing for time is hardly the answer.”
The fact that Ms. Rice — in her remarks to the U.S.-India Business Council in Washington on Thursday — stressed the importance of not just “the agreements that our leaders signed” but also “the legislation that we have passed” has also been taken note of by officials here.
The Bush administration maintains that in finalising the contours of the 123 Agreement, it cannot go beyond the provisions of the Hyde Act passed last December. However, nothing in U.S. law prevents the administration from allowing India the right to reprocess spent U.S.-origin or U.S.-obligated fuel.