NEW DELHI (Reuters) -A top U.S. official arrives in India on Thursday to push a landmark nuclear deal between the two nations, but the talks face likely hurdles over New Delhi”s need for fresh reassurances from Washington.
India is concerned Washington could be moving the goalposts on the deal agreed in July and would take this up at Friday”s talks with U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, Indian officials said.
"The devil is beginning to show in the details," a senior official told Reuters. "We expected this process to be difficult and we seem to be getting to the difficult part now."
Under the deal, agreed by President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the United States would help energy-hungry India”s stuttering civilian nuclear programme to boost growth in Asia”s third-largest economy.
Washington also promised to help New Delhi — a nuclear power which has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty — be treated as a permanent exception at the 44-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which bars nuclear cooperation with non-NPT members.
In return, India promised to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities and place the civilian ones under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards to ensure U.S. nuclear supplies are not diverted for military use.
The Bush administration has been confident about pushing the deal through U.S. Congress despite many members, both Republican and Democrat, voicing concern that it could undermine global non-proliferation efforts.
However, comments by Burns ahead of his departure for New Delhi have raised questions about the timing of steps to be taken by both countries, whose ties have warmed significantly in the last five years.
Burns, speaking at the Asia Society in New York this week, said India must draft a plan to separate civil and military nuclear sectors so Washington could keep its side of the promise.
But Indian officials said both countries had agreed to move forward simultaneously and Singh had explicitly said separation of civil and military facilities would happen in phases.
This was partly due to fears India was compromising its nuclear arms programme to boost its civilian sector, an issue that has sparked domestic political opposition.
"Of course we will keep our side of the promise, but we need to know that they intend to do that too," the Indian official said. "Things have to be simultaneous. We have domestic political pressures just as they do."
India”s diplomatic burden is expected to be compounded by the Iran nuclear crisis. In a policy turnaround last month, New Delhi voted with Washington at the IAEA to oppose old friend Tehran”s nuclear programme. The vote was seen as forced by the need to safeguard the India-U.S. nuclear deal.
But with another IAEA vote expected in November on sending Iran to the U.N. Security Council, New Delhi — facing strong criticism from communist allies of the government over the September vote — would be in a tight spot if there was no movement on the U.S. nuclear deal, officials said.
"The remarks of Burns on the timing and sequence of the implementation of mutual commitments under the nuclear pact leave considerable ambiguity," strategic affairs analyst C. Raja Mohan wrote in the Indian Express daily on Thursday.
"Removing those ambiguities would be the main theme at the talks," he said, adding the two countries might need to take some interim steps to generate confidence.