Dismissing suggestions that the Indo-US civilian nuclear accord was in serious trouble, the Bush Administration has said that though it was ready to show some flexibility to accommodate the views of Congress members, it was not prepared to impose conditions or introduce legislations at this point that may break the deal.
"We have a very active discussion with members of Congress. There is always a variety of views and sometimes you can get lost in that. I think there are a lot of supporters who have stood up in favour of this. There are people who have praised or criticised different aspects of the agreement and we have to deal with that," Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher said in an interview to PTI at the State Department.
"There are a number of people who have raised the issue -- actually it is Congressional prerogative -- for Congress to vote on the bilateral agreement, something that Congressman [Tom] Lantos has raised and that is not a India issue. It is an issue for the Congress and us. But it is one that we have got to talk to them about," Boucher said.
"I think we are flexible in some terms, in terms of accommodating some of the desires of Congress and have us work with them. We certainly accept the views of Congress on different issues but we are also going to make clear that we cannot do things -- legislations or conditions -- at this point that will break the deal," Boucher said emphatically.
On the London meeting between Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns and Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, he said it was "another good step forward" with India coming back with a response to the draft of the bilateral nuclear agreement.
Boucher said that though he does not have a full report of the meeting, based on early remarks it appears to have gone quite well. "They have had the time to have a very thorough discussion, a very detailed discussion on how to move forward with the relationship, on how we move forward with the Congress, nuclear suppliers, bilateral agreements".
- Also see: The Nicholas Burns interview
"I see from the reports that the Indian side came back with a response to our draft bilateral agreement which is good now. That sets us up for sitting down seriously and talking about it, negotiating it. I think overall it is another good step forward. We are working very closely together on a lot of things and this is another sign of it," he said.
Burns was intending to give Saran an update on where we stood with Congress, the senior administration official added.
Turning to the NSG meeting next week, Boucher stressed that while this was a conference with a broader international agenda, the subject of the US-India civilian nuclear Agreement will figure and that it would be "helpful" if New Delhi is able to answer some questions including on the status of the safeguards agreement and the separation plan.
"In terms of the US-India agreement, I am sure there will be some discussion among the countries there. It will be helpful if Indians are able to answers questions there about the status of their safeguards agreement, about the deal, about the separation plan," he said, recalling that at the last NSG meet, India had not yet tabled in its Parliament the details of the separation plan and there were a "lot of questions about that".
"What I think will happen is that there will be another discussion, a lot of questions asked and the considerations will continue at some future date," Boucher said.
As part of discussions with other countries on the Indo-US nuclear deal, the senior official said he would be traveling to Canada on Friday.
"We have ongoing discussions with a lot of countries. We just don't do it in non-proliferation circles. We do it in policy circles, people who appreciate the strategic interests for developing better relationship with India and helping India developing at the same time," Boucher said.
"We have a dialogue going with Canada," the senior official said adding that 'like many others they [Canada] have some questions'.
The Senior State Department official talked about the status of the civilian nuclear legislation currently pending in Congress, the administration's pitch with Congress including the limits to which it could do in securing the deal and the attitude and role of outside players like NSG.
On the civilian nuclear deal itself, Boucher, like other senior administration officials, pointed to a number of 'important' things that would have to be done and that the administration did not want 'one to wait for the other'.
"There are a number of important things that have to be done. We don't want one to wait for the other. There are four things the US has to do and India has to do: pass legislation in US Congress and we are working on that; get the Resolution from the NSG. We are working that although this is not going to happen next week; negotiate the bilateral agreement; and for India to get the safeguards agreement with the IAEA and initial discussions has been held on that," Boucher remarked.
"Our view is that all these should proceed apace and progress in one area will reinforce progress in another area and we should not delay one for the other," the senior official said referring to the time tables of Congress and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Boucher was asked if the Bush administration was apprehensive of the role of China in this civilian nuclear energy arrangement and if Beijing will come up with a googly to wreck the deal at the NSG, which operates by consensus.
"I don't know whether China is going to throw in a googly or not. But there are certainly no indications at this point that they want to do that. We have seen their public statements which are generally positive," the senior South Asia official replied.
"We think there are a lot of legitimate questions among the Nuclear Suppliers Group and these questions have answers, including answers from the United States, answers from India and answers from the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who said at a press conference yesterday that this is a win-win situation and good for non proliferation," Boucher said.
The Senior State Department official brushed aside the contention of some in the non-proliferation community that the draft Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty tabled by the United States at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva is a half hearted measure aimed at appeasing members of Congress over this civilian nuclear arrangement than in coming to comprehensive terms with the issue.
"As important as India is to our relations and my job, we don't table global treaties in order to take care of a political issue with one country. We table a global treaty because we want a global treaty. The fact that the US came forward with this at this time is an important sign of our commitment to non-proliferation. It is an important sign of United States' willingness to look forward in an area that has been stalled for a long time," Boucher countered.
"It is also an opportunity for US-India cooperation," he said recalling the discussions of last July between the President George W Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Boucher also talked about the general state of bilateral relations stressing that the agenda was "everything" and in the "active follow up" of both sides in the aftermath of the visit of President Bush to India in March.
"We follow methodically that came out of the President's trip, the Assistant Secretary remarked going on to make the point that the next big events could be seen in the realm of economics, investments, the recommendations of the CEOs Forum, forming committees on science and technology and following up on the agricultural initiative.
"We are obviously moving forward on the nuclear area. We are looking at what we can do in defence; expanding our cooperation internationally on democracy," the senior official said even while talking about the expanding cooperation on regional issues such as Nepal and in Washington maintaining its interest and encouraging the dialogue between India and Pakistan.