Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Nicholas Burns -- the Bush administration's point man to push the United States-India civilian nuclear agreement through Congress -- who expressed optimism last month that the deal would be inked when President Bush visits India sometime in late February next year, now, apparently does not think it will be done deal by then.
But he asserted that the President would still visit India in winter -- a fully negotiated deal, approved by Congress, in hand or not.
Burns told rediff.com, when reminded about his optimism during the question and answer session that followed his address to the Asia Society in New York on October 18, "We hoped it will, but we are not sure of that, because everything will depend on the speed by which the Indian government develops its civil and military separation plan."
He was speaking immediately after an appearance before the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday afternoon, along with Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph on the US-India Civil Cooperation Initiative.
"I would also say," he added, "that we just need to be deliberate here and we need to be careful to make sure that both of us are implementing the agreement. We have every reason to believe India will. But this is a good deal for the US. So we don't want to see the deal changed if that's possible, because we think it's a good deal. That's why we negotiated it."
Joseph had earlier warned the lawmakers on the panel, including its chairman, Senator Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican and one of the fiercest nonproliferation advocates in Congress, that it should eschew the urge to pile on more conditions to the July 18 agreement as the nonproliferation lobby has been calling for. He told rediff.com that "We don't want to lose the deal because of those who would try to add additional conditions such as the ones that I mentioned in my testimony."
But he acknowledged that 'we are going to continue and we have continued to work with India to get it to take additional nonproliferation measures. We've talked with them about joining the Proliferation Security Initiative, we've worked with them very closely in the context of the International Atomic Energy Agency actions on Iran. These are the kinds of actions that we would like to see just as a member of the nonproliferation community'.
Burns asserted that even if the deal is finalised or not, President Bush would not let this stand in the way of his proposed trip to India. "Of course, yes, very definitely he will visit India. It will be nice to have this initiative completed by the time of the President's visit, but it is not necessary."
He said, "The President has lots of other business to do in Delhi and throughout India and is looking forward to his trip.We need to set the exact dates with the Indian government -- we'll do that.But this is a comprehensive relationship that we are building. I alluded to that in the beginning of my testimony and in my written testimony. I explained how broad it is. So this is a new strategic engagement."
Burns predicted that '"this will be a very successful visit by the President to India,' but when this correspondent tried to nail him down even in terms of a ball-park time-frame and whether the rumors of late February still held true, he said, "It is always perilous to guess the date of a visit. We'll let you know when we have it. We expect the visit to be this winter -- our winter. But the White House needs to decide on the date with the Indian government."
Earlier, in his testimony, he told the lawmakers that 'based on my visit to New Delhi two weeks ago, it is clear to us that it will take some time for the Indian government to fulfill all of the commitments it made in the July 18 agreement. The actions India agreed to take are difficult, complex and time-consuming'.
Thus, Burns said the administration 'believes it is better to wait before we ask Congress to consider any adjustments in law until India is further along in taking the necessary steps to fulfill our agreement'.
He said it is unlikely the Indians would have taken these steps before 'the first part of 2006. It could be Feburary or March or April'.
"Our judgement is that it would not be wise or fair to ask Congress to make such a consequential decision without evidence that the Indian government was acting on what is arguably the most important of its obligations and that the separation of its civilian and military nuclear facilities," he said.
Burns said he had impressed upon 'the Indian leadership in Delhi two weeks ago that they must craft a credible and transparent plan and have begun to implement it before the administration would request Congressional action'.
"My counterpart, Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, assured me that the Indian government will produce such a plan. As India begins to meet its commitments under our agreement, we will propose appropriate language that would be India-specific and would demonstrate our dedication to fulfill the July 18 agreement," he said.
Burns said he had invited Saran to visit Washington in December 'to continue these implementation negotiations and I will be retuning to Delhi in January', and assured the lawmakers that '"we will,of course, keep the Congress fully apprised of all these discussions'.