U.S.-Indian Talks Fail to Move Nuclear Deal

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Top U.S. and Indian officials failed recently to jump-start their stalled negotiations on a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement that both governments hail as a centerpiece of their new relationship.

The two sides sought to favorably portray the latest talks that took place May 31 to June 2 in New Delhi. The U.S. embassy there issued a statement describing the discussions as "useful," while Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon deemed them as "constructive and productive."

But the lead U.S. negotiator, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, left town without addressing reporters. His quiet exit spoke volumes about the lack of results, particularly since the Department of State had announced May 1 that the goal of Burns' visit was to "reach a final agreement."

The agreement being pursued is known as a 123 agreement, after the relevant section of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. It would set the terms of future U.S.-Indian civil nuclear commerce. The United States previously cut off most nuclear trade with India following India's 1974 explosion of a nuclear device derived in part from Canadian- and U.S.-origin material and technologies imported ostensibly for peaceful purposes.

Menon said June 2 that he was not setting dates or deadlines for completion of the agreement "because I do not think that is the right way to negotiate something that is so complicated." Still, he noted that the two sides would like to finish negotiations "very quickly."

President George W. Bush reportedly has invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to an August stay at his home in Texas. They would probably like nothing more than to cap their visit with a finished agreement.

The two leaders put the entire effort in motion two years ago. (See ACT, September 2005.) Bush pledged to change U.S. law and international rules restricting nuclear trade with India in exchange for a Singh commitment to open up a greater portion of India's nuclear complex to outside oversight, specifically safeguards administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Safeguards are measures intended to prevent nuclear technologies and materials in civil programs from flowing to nuclear weapons.

Congress gave its blessing to reviving nuclear trade with India in legislation passed last December. In that legislation, lawmakers established conditions under which future trade could be carried out. (See ACT, January/ February 2007. …