The United States and India are close to agreement on a plan that would pave the way for a nuclear energy cooperation deal. The accord could be finalized when President Bush visits New Delhi early next year.
U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns is en route to New Delhi to negotiate an agreement spelling out differences between India's civilian and military nuclear programs. The talks could clear the way for a landmark atomic energy deal that would end years of disputes between New Delhi and Washingtonon on India's nuclear program.
In a speech to New York's Asia Society on the eve of his departure, Secretary Burns said the Bush administration is working with Congress to change U.S. law to allow American companies to engage in civil nuclear cooperation with India.
"Part of the purpose of my visit to Delhi this week is to work with the Indian government on a plan that would separate the civil and military nuclear states of India over the coming years," Mr. Burns says. "Once that plan has been clearly enunciated and once it has been committed to by the Indian government and we begin to see its implementation, it will be a short time before the U.S. Congress enacts the necessary legislative changes to bring this into being, and that will be a welcome moment, indeed."
The concept of distinguishing between India's civilian and military nuclear programs is controversial. Some skeptical members of Congress have noted that New Delhi has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and questioned whether changing U.S. laws and international rules might promote rather than curb the spread of nuclear weapons. More congressional hearings on the US-India deal will take place in the coming weeks.
The outlines of the deal emerged last July, during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington. The United States said it would give India access to civilian nuclear energy-related technology after New Delhi divides its atomic energy program into two parts and places its reactors under supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Undersecretary Burns says the United States is working with the IAEA board in Vienna to ease sanctions imposed on India.
"The United States is in Vienna today (Tuesday) and tomorrow (Wednesday) arguing in the nuclear suppliers group that international restrictions on India should be lessened," Mr. Burns says. "We have already taken certain Indian entities off the proscribed list of the Commerce Department so they can do business with American firms and the United States government. I think by the time President Bush visits Delhi in early 2006 we will see that both our countries will have met our commitments in this landmark agreement and we will see it come to fruition."
For three decades, the United States spoke out strongly against allowing India access to nuclear technology. India, like South Asian rival Pakistan, has refused to join the non-proliferation regime, and Washington imposed sanctions after New Delhi conducted a second round of nuclear tests in 1998.
In his speech to the Asia Society Tuesday, Undersecretary Burns acknowledged that the Washington-New Delhi relationship is still, in his words, not perfect. But he noted that there has been a dramatic change since the Cold War years, when India was more closely allied with the Soviet Union.
Undersecretary Burns was instrumental in developing a wide range of U.S./India partnership initiatives recently, which he describes as "the high-water mark" of 60 years of relations between India and the United States.
India surprised many observers last month when it voted with the United States and several European countries to threaten Iran with referral to the U.N. Security Council for its nuclear activities.