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N-talks go into third day
Ashish Kumar Sen writes from Washington

India and the United States on Wednesday extended nuclear talks by another day after failing to achieve a breakthrough on a deal that seeks to allow civilian nuclear cooperation between the two countries. Sources close to the negotiations told the Tribune that both sides were examining some possible solutions to the impasse.

Confirming that the meetings would spill over into a third day, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said, "They had a good meeting. They are continuing the discussions tomorrow."

Two main sticking points - reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and guaranteeing nuclear fuel supply in the eventuality of a nuclear test by India - continue to vex the negotiators.

The Indian team has outlined a chain of events that could lead to New Delhi breaking a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing. This includes scenarios in which Pakistan, China and even the United States test a nuclear weapon. Under all of these scenarios Washington will likely not punish India for reciprocal testing.

As per the US Atomic Energy Act, Washington must terminate nuclear cooperation deals if the partner country tests a nuclear device. The Hyde Act, which enables civilian nuclear cooperation with India and was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in December 2006, gives the president the option to waive that condition.

Analysts point out that the possibility that India will test a nuclear weapon in a situation other than those outlined is very slim. In hindsight, they say, the issue should not have even been brought up front and centre in the negotiations since the likelihood of testing is so remote.

Sources close to the negotiations said on the question of nuclear testing there are a "narrow set of possibilities" being looked at to clear this hurdle.

The US will likely reserve the right to terminate the agreement subject to presidential verification.

This will play very negatively at the political level in India, but at the bureaucratic level officials have been taken on board, sounded out on this possible solution and likely to work with it, sources said. The Department of Atomic Energy, which has had serious concerns regarding the deal, is also seen likely to accept such a scenario.

"If India reserves the right to test, the US will reserve the right to terminate the deal," said a source. "India must be prepared to face the consequences."

On the other sticking point - reprocessing rights - both sides have been discussing "technical aspects" of setting up a facility under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards that will meet U.S. security conditions. Under this scenario the necessary information will be provided to the US - this includes verification that there is no diversion of nuclear fuel to military programmes, no re-exporting of fuel, and no altering of it without prior US consent.

This issue of reprocessing rights is likely to be a major sticking point with some members of the United States Congress. Once the 123 Agreement is finalised by the negotiating teams, Congress must pass it in a vote before the Nuclear Suppliers Group takes it up.

Sources say the question of reprocessing was always part of the nuclear deal, which was signed by Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on July 18, 2005, but came to the forefront when the Indian side pushed it out front in January.

So far, 80 per cent of the issues in the 123 Agreement have been agreed on. Both sides have completed the work of converting that part to a legally binding agreement. Some work has been done on conversion of the remaining language in the agreement.

In an apparent bid to push the deal, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice met for 15 to 20 minutes on Wednesday with national security adviser M.K. Narayanan and foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon. Department of Atomic Energy chairman Anil Kakodkar is also part of the delegation visiting Washington.

Narayanan met separately with US national security adviser Stephen Hadley at the White House. White House spokesman Tony Snow said the agreement was "very important to us and we want to see it successfully concluded."

"A high-powered delegation has been sent to Washington by design," said a source, adding that this is an extremely tough deal that the Americans will have some difficulty accepting.

Describing the atmospherics of the meetings this week, sources told the Tribune these have been a "tense discussion between friends."

"They like each other, but understand the political burden of getting this critical deal over the finish line. They have formed good bonds, and that will endure," said a source, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Talk in New Delhi about a natural gas pipeline project with Iran has irritated some prominent friends of India on Capitol Hill, including Congressman Tom Lantos, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Congressman Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat. These members are likely to air their concerns over the Iran issue when the 123 Agreement comes to Congress.

Sources said the Indian negotiators have been repeatedly assuring Bush administration officials that the deal with Iran still has a long way to go, despite statements from officials in New Delhi, including Mani Shankar Aiyar and Murli Deora.

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