N-deal to dominate Mukherjee-Rice talks in US

March 20th, 2008 - 9:05 pm ICT by admin  

By Arun Kumar
Washington, March 20 (IANS) How to take the stalled civil nuclear deal forward is expected to be the focus of Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s talks with top US officials here during his two-day visit starting Sunday. The entire gamut of India-US relations will figure in Mukherjee’s talks Monday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but the landmark nuclear deal which in his own words India can neither “mend” nor “end” would be in the spotlight.

While the US has touted the nuclear deal as the symbolic “centrepiece” of its ties with India, it has been in limbo since New Delhi and Washington worked out the implementing 123 agreement in July as the Indian government’s Left supporters have threatened to pull the plug over the issue.

“We are in a stage where neither we can mend it nor end it. We are in the dialogue stage,” Mukherjee told the Indian parliament Wednesday.

It will be Mukherjee’s first bilateral visit to the US in his capacity as foreign minister. It comes nearly three years after Natwar Singh came to Washington in April 2005 to hold talks at the foreign minister level.

As there has been no bilateral foreign minister visit since then, both sides consider it as “highly important”. Beyond the nuclear issue the two teams will have a wide-ranging discussion on several aspects of the broadening and deepening bilateral relations Monday.

Besides Rice, Mukherjee is also expected to meet several other cabinet and administration officials including those at the National Security Council that counsels President George W. Bush on security issues.

US officials have said they would like to focus on the major issues in their relationship with India including regional cooperation in South Asia, Afghanistan, energy cooperation, space cooperation, agriculture cooperation and the relationship across the board.

Washington’s chief interlocutor on the nuclear deal, Nicholas Burns, quit his job as US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs at the end of February, but he continues to work on the “India file” to take the deal to its conclusion.

On the eve of his retirement from the State Department, Burns urged India to quickly make a “courageous decision” to endorse their civil nuclear agreement that Bush considers a major accomplishment of his administration.

“I’m afraid it’s time for the government to decide. We hope the decision will be positive,” Burns said stressing, as several other US officials have done, that time is ticking out for the nuclear deal with the US Congress going into the election mode by July.

The nuclear deal still has a couple of hurdles to cross. The implementing 123 agreement finalised last July can go for a final approval before the US Congress only after New Delhi signs an India-specific safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that governs global nuclear trade clears it.

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