Indian Premier Seeks To Resolve Dispute Over Nuclear Deal

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 20, 2007

NEW DELHI, Aug. 19 -- After a week of bitter political impasse over the controversial civilian nuclear energy deal with the United States, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government on Sunday was working to negotiate a compromise that would save both the government and the deal.

While Singh's deputies maintained that it was not possible to renegotiate the nuclear deal, they also said dialogue is needed to resolve the concerns of communist political parties. The parties, which are crucial to the government's survival, have opposed the deal, saying it is detrimental to India's sovereign interests.

"We are making serious efforts. We had some discussions, and they have expressed their desire that the government shouldn't proceed further on the nuclear deal," Foreign Minister Shri Pranab Mukherjee told reporters.

Singh's colleagues are eager to reduce the rhetoric over the deal by establishing a special committee of nuclear experts and politicians to study the implications of the so-called Hyde Act, the U.S. law that enables the United States to participate in the deal, a government official said on condition of anonymity.

The deal, called the 123 agreement because of Section 123 in the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, would give India access to U.S. nuclear technology and deliver fuel supplies to India's civilian power plants in return for placing them under permanent international safeguards. India is to negotiate with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the multinational Nuclear Suppliers Group before the deal is implemented.

"Unless all the implications of the Hyde Act are evaluated and considered, the government should not proceed with the negotiations," said Sitaram Yechury, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). "For that, if they want to set up a committee, then we are ready to consider it."

The law gives the U.S. administration clearance to supply nuclear technology to a country that has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or submitted to safeguards. But Indian lawmakers contend the act will cap India's independent nuclear program and production of fissionable material, and that the energy agreement would be revoked if India conducted a nuclear test in the future.

The nuclear deal came close to threatening the survival of Singh's coalition government Saturday, when the Communist Party of India (Marxist) warned of "serious consequences" if Singh negotiates safeguards with the IAEA without addressing their concerns.

Despite the political posturing, it remained unclear whether the communist parties would withdraw support from the government over the issue. But several political analysts said that a serious rupture in relations with the government had occurred and that the countdown for an eventual withdrawal of support had begun.

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