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Cheney surprise in nuclear talks

Washington, July 19: National security adviser M.K. Narayanan and foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon have bridged a significant gap in concluding the 123 Agreement with US Vice-President Dick Cheney extending “political support” to India’s right to reprocess spent fuel produced by any American reactors imported by New Delhi.

The finalisation of the 123 Agreement may, however, require at least another technical round of negotiations for such political support to be translated into an agreed text which will meet the requirements of America’s complex non-proliferation laws. In view of this, the talks in Washington this week on the nuclear deal ended without any press briefing by either the Americans or the Indian delegation.

At the time of writing, Narayanan, Menon and India’s ambassador to the US, Ronen Sen, have emerged from a rare and unusual appointment with Cheney. The Indian negotiators were earlier encouraged by their date with Cheney after the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, signalled yesterday that President George W. Bush stood by his commitments made in New Delhi in March last year that “reprocessing arrangements that stand in stark contrast to current nuclear theology” should govern the Indo-US nuclear deal.

Rice told Indian officials that the President was “trying to think differently, not to stay stuck in the past”, according to officials privy to yesterday’s dialogue.

Cheney is the most powerful Vice-President in US history and the strongman of the Bush team, who has twisted US policy in the last six and a half years to suit his views.

Therefore, it was anticipated that if the Vice-President endorsed Bush’s views on reprocessing and conveyed these to the Indian delegation — which he did, according to sources — the rest will be a matter of technical details on the text of the 123 Agreement.

But negotiators on both sides say that task, in itself, can be daunting.

One American, who is associated with this week’s talks here, said the US effort all along was to ensure that the agreed text of the proposed agreement plugged all loopholes in US law and allowed no excuse for the Congress to reject the 123 pact when it went to Capitol Hill for a “yes or no” vote.

This means aligning the 123 Agreement to America’s Atomic Energy Act and the binding provisions of the India-specific Hyde Act of last year.

One official said the Americans had come up with questions about India’s March 2006 separation plan -- identifying military and civilian nuclear facilities -- while considering New Delhi's latest proposal for a dedicated reprocessing unit under safeguards.

What is encouraging visiting Indian officials this week is that these are now technical issues and that the political push for the 123 pact provided by Cheney, Rice -- and Bush in a telephone talk with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last week – have largely paved the way for an agreement.

Menon had an intense round of talks Burns early this morning in an attempt to bridge more gaps before the Indian delegation met Cheney.

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