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Deal done but under wraps

Washington, July 20: US Vice-President Dick Cheney, the Bush administration’s bouncer, took no more than two minutes to give the green light for the Washington round of negotiations on the Indo-US nuclear deal.

That green light, and US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s direct intervention on Wednesday in this week’s negotiations here, helped seal the deal two years after it was announced.

Details of the 123 Agreement needed to operationalise that deal will not be made public until a meeting of the cabinet committee on security (CCS) on the Indian side next week and formal approval by President George W. Bush.

A joint statement issued here on Friday said both sides were “pleased with the substantial progress made on the outstanding issues in the 123 Agreement. We will now refer the issue to our governments for final review”.

It added that “both the US and India look forward to the completion of these remaining steps and to the conclusion of this historic initiative”.

At his meeting with national security adviser M.K. Narayanan, Cheney pronounced that the deal must be concluded, according to sources familiar with the exchange yesterday.

That unequivocal pronouncement set in motion an unexpected chain of events.

The meeting between Cheney and the Indian delegation, which included foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and Indian ambassador to the US, Ronen Sen, took place a day before it was announced that Cheney would become America’s acting President from Saturday until Bush recovers from a medical procedure.

After the meeting with Cheney, Menon headed back to his suite at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel across the road from the White House, ready to pack up and go home with Anil Kakodkar, secretary of the department of atomic energy.

Narayanan was to follow this morning, catching a flight home from New York. A media conference that was expected to take place was never scheduled.

At the US state department too, deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters: “I wasn’t given the impression that you should look for an announcement today or some kind of definitive conclusion.”

But then everything changed. The Cheney-Narayanan meeting triggered a resumption of the Washington round of talks, which had been pronounced as concluded.

Menon, according to one aide, left his half-packed suitcase in the hotel room and headed back to the state department with Raminder Singh Jassal, the deputy chief of mission at the Indian embassy here.

When he returned to the hotel two hours later, an intrepid woman TV reporter extracted an admission from the foreign secretary that he would stay on for another 24 hours to continue the negotiations.

At that point, even members of his delegation were in the dark about the change in Menon’s plans.

Yesterday, Narayanan had an unscheduled, 30-minute meeting with his US counterpart. Stephen Hadley told Narayanan that he was personally taking charge of fine-tuning the text of the 123 Agreement so that nothing was amiss, a task that would normally be left to the equivalent in the Indian system of a joint secretary.

The Indian delegation was closeted in two groups until almost midnight last night: one group led by S. Jaishankar, the high commissioner to Singapore, going through what could be the final text of the 123 Agreement with a fine-toothed comb, and the bigwigs led by Sen plotting strategy for the final lap in the talks.

Then, this morning, Menon began the conclusive talks with Nicholas Burns, the US under-secretary of state for political affairs.

Even then, Casey had said by way of insurance against any last-minute failure: “I wouldn’t read a lack of an announcement of an agreement as anything indicating that we won’t ultimately be able to have a deal….”

The deal that will be put up before the CCS and the President will be a “frozen text”: that means neither side can change what is agreed today, but can only accept or reject the text in toto.

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