- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2008

VIENNA, Austria | The United States appeared optimistic and reaffirmed its commitment to a landmark U.S.-India nuclear cooperation deal Thursday at the end of a first day of discussions by a consortium crucial to its fate.

But other participants in a meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) suggested it was unlikely that a final decision on whether to give India access to legal imports of nuclear fuel and technology would be made by the time the meeting wraps up Friday.

Chances of an unconditional exemption for India - wanted by Washington and New Delhi - also appeared to be dwindling.

“We continue to believe this is a very important initiative and we remain committed to achieving an outcome that is both a net benefit for the nonproliferation regime and that meets India’s energy needs,” Undersecretary of State John Rood told reporters.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the United States is “very hopeful” that the NSG would approve a waiver for India.

The U.S.-India deal would reverse more than three decades of U.S. policy that has barred the sale of nuclear fuel and technology to India, a country that has not signed international nonproliferation accords and has tested nuclear weapons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency gave India the green light earlier this month.

But India still needs approval from the 45-nation NSG. Observers said the group, which operates by consensus, was unlikely to relax its rules during the highly secretive two-day meeting, and some suggested it could take up to three meetings before a decision is made.

Participants from other nations indicated that countries had offered an array of amendments and that it was likely another meeting would be necessary after Friday.

All participants spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to reporters.

If approved, the exemption would give India access to technology and fuel normally reserved for countries that have signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and allow their nuclear facilities to be fully inspected.

Some countries are enticed by the prospect of doing more business with India, and appear to back a U.S. argument that the deal would bring India into the nonproliferation mainstream.

Washington considers the deal with New Delhi a foreign-policy priority and hopes to gain needed approval from Congress before President Bush leaves office.

But others are concerned that exporting nuclear fuel and technology to a country that has not made a legally binding disarmament pledge could set a dangerous precedent and weaken efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and materials to other nations.

Iran is sure to object to the deal, arguing that India - which developed nuclear arms in secret - is now being rewarded with access to atomic technology.

Iran is under U.N. sanctions for refusing to freeze its nuclear activities, though it insists the program is peaceful despite international concerns it is a cover for developing weapons.

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