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‘Breathtaking’ US sweetener on deal

Washington, Oct. 31: President George W. Bush’s pointman for nuclear negotiations with Delhi has added a sweetener to the deal that the BJP may find difficult to turn down.

In a breathtaking departure, Nicholas Burns, the US under-secretary of state for political affairs, has held out the possibility that America may not end civilian nuclear cooperation with India even if Delhi tests another atomic bomb in the future.

“It would be up to the American President at that time,” Burns told National Public Radio (NPR) in an interview about the fate of the nuclear deal.

The departure was literally breathtaking: Burns, who is normally slippery as an eel when confronted by reporters, was pinned down by the NPR interviewer so much so that his gasp was audible at two points during the interview.

Burns said: “We have a clear obligation under the (US) Atomic Energy Act to react if a country like India conducts a nuclear test.”

He asserted that “the President, any future President, will always have that right under our law”, when asked if Congressional conditions for starting nuclear cooperation with India were being met during operationalisation of the deal.

This answer prompted the supplementary question: “You have a right, you say, to end nuclear cooperation. Would the US be required to end nuclear cooperation if there were another test under the agreement that you have negotiated'”

Burns let out an uncharacteristic gasp at that point, but tried in vain to be evasive. “Under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the President has the right, the opportunity. That is how the law is written. We have protected that right.”

But the interviewer would not let go of him. “Which means you wouldn’t necessarily end nuclear cooperation and the Indians seem to think that perhaps you wouldn’t'” he persisted.

Burns gasped again, this time more audibly. “It would be up to the American President at that time, but we have been very clear with the Indians that we don’t want them to conduct another nuclear test and there is no indication that they have plans to do that any time soon,” he rationalised.

By then, the suave American diplomat probably realised that he had let out more than he had intended to do. Some argue, however, that what Burns said was carefully calculated to persuade fence-sitters in India to be nudged in favour of the deal.

Either way, he proceeded to protect himself from any outrage from non-proliferationists in the US Congress. He said “we have protected that right” of the President to act against proliferators and others who have not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

He added that “the Congress was absolutely correct in asking us to do that”.

It is not known what the US ambassador to India, David Mulford, told BJP leaders in his recent meetings with them on operationalising the nuclear deal. But Burns’s comments have led to assessments here that Mulford may have given the BJP broad assurances on the lines of the radio interview.

The BJP would find it tempting to support a nuclear deal which is backed by assurances that a US President need not impose mandatory sanctions if India tests another atomic bomb.

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