Burns says "time is wasting" on India nuclear deal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Saying “time is wasting,” U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said on Friday he hoped India could quickly get international approvals needed for the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal to go through this year.

The agreement would give India access to U.S. nuclear fuel and equipment for the first time in 30 years even though New Delhi has tested nuclear weapons and refused to join nonproliferation agreements.

Proponents argue the deal will be the cornerstone of a new strategic relationship between the two nations. Some Indians, however, feel it infringes on their sovereignty while some nonproliferation advocates believe it undermines the global system designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

To go into effect, the pact has to clear three hurdles.

India must reach an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to place its civilian nuclear reactors under U.N. safeguards and it must get clearance from the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group that governs global civilian nuclear trade.

After those steps, it must secure a final approval from the U.S. Congress, where it enjoys bipartisan support but where its passage could be complicated by the short legislative calendar ahead of the U.S. November 4 election.

“Time is wasting. We don’t have all the time in the world, particularly since this is an election year ... and so we hope very much that this process can now be expedited,” Burns told Reuters in an interview.

Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns is interviewed by Reuters at the State Department, February 8, 2008. REUTERS/Susan Cornwell

“This agreement needs now to move forward more quickly. It’s been suspended for a number of months and we hope, very strongly, that the Indians will be able to find their way forward and move this rather quickly in the weeks ahead,” he added. “It is now up to the Indian government, of course, to complete this process so that we can get to a vote -- as early as possible in 2008 -- to the U.S. Congress.”

Burns, a career diplomat who has been the lead U.S. negotiator and is due to retire shortly, said he could visit India before he steps down but had no specific plans to do so.

Analysts believe the deal will ultimately win the support of Congress, where many members want to help U.S. companies win business in India and cultivate the Indian-American lobby.

However, one congressional aide who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the matter said it must get to lawmakers by May for the House of Representatives and the Senate to have enough time to consider and vote on it.

If there is no vote this year the deal could be considered by the next president and Congress, but this would deprive the Bush administration of a foreign policy victory and could delay any vote while the new administration considers the deal.

Another congressional aide, who also asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak about the matter, said he believed Congress could get to the deal this year.

“The (congressional) agenda is not so crowded that it can’t get in there,” said this aide. “That is an argument they are using to put pressure on India to cut a deal with the IAEA. The administration wants it (the deal) for its own credit.”

Some nonproliferation advocates argue that if India wins an exemption from the Nuclear Suppliers Group rules allowing it to trade with those nations, New Delhi could abandon the U.S. deal and engage in civil nuclear trade with other nations.

Burns dismissed this scenario as improbable.

“We have a very strong, friendly relationship with the Indian government. It’s a government that time and again has proved it’s a trustworthy partner,” he said.

Editing by Todd Eatham