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Transcript of the Press Conference by Foreign Secretary Mr. Shyam Saran at the Embassy of India, Washington, DC

Washington, DC
March 31, 2006

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran: Thank you very much and Good Afternoon to all of you. I have had a very productive three days in Washington. The main objective for my visit to Washington was to follow up on President Bush’s extremely successful visit to India this month. Of course the civil nuclear agreement was one of the important subjects that I had to take up, but in addition to that, there are a number of other areas where we need to take our relationship forward and in that connection I would like to mention that I had meetings this morning with the Under Secretary of the Department of Commerce, Mr. McCormick. As you know, with him, I head the High Technology Co-operation Group. We also talked about the economic dialogue between our two countries. Also the plans for holding a United States – India Investment Summit later on during the year, probably towards the end of the year. 

I also had a meeting with Mr. David Garman, who is the Undersecretary in the Department of Energy. As you know, in addition to the Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation agreement, we have a very broad ranging cooperation in the energy field. We have agreed, for example, to be partners in the Future-gen Project which is a research project devoted to creating technology for a zero emission, cold based thermal plant. We are talking about the exploitation of gas hydrates in off shore areas. We are looking at heat/cold technology. We are also talking about the sub fuel areas like the hydrogen fueled economy. So there is a very broad ranging energy relationship that is developing between the two countries and one of the very important objectives of this visit was to try and take that forward. At the Department of State as you know, I had two or three important sessions with my counterpart Mr. Nicholas Burns. There was also a meeting with Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. 

In these meetings we of course took stock of where we were, especially with regards to the Civil Nuclear Energy Agreement. I was given an assessment by my U.S. interlocutors as to what is the current state of play after the legislation has been now put on the table in the office in the congress. A general sense that was given to me was that in the United States Congress there was great and wide spread support involving India and United States partnership. There is very strong support for the economic relationship as well as the science and technology relationship and the energy relationship. As far as the concerns that are there, they relate to, as we know, to the non proliferation idea; Whether or not this agreement would in any way undermine the objective of non proliferation. 
So, we took stock of where we were with regards to Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation Agreement. We have also been provided a draft of the Civil Nuclear Energy agreement, the bilateral agreement and that of course will require further examination on our part. We will be engaging in negotiations on that at an appropriate time. 

Taking the assessment from the administration, yesterday I spent most of the time on the hill and met a number of Congressmen. These meetings were extremely useful. The meetings included Chairman Henry Hide of the House International Relations Committee, Senator Joseph Biden who is the ranking democrat in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, representative Tom Lantos who is the ranking democrat on the house side, Senator Obama who is also on the Foreign Relations Committee and Congressman Ackerman, Wilson and Eni Faleomavaega. In all these meetings again what really impressed me was as the administration has pointed out to us that there is very strong support for the India - United States partnership. All the Congressmen I met said that they saw a great future in the India - United States relationship. They were very excited about the progress that has already been made. They were very impressed by the very broad ranging relationship which is emerging and they were very pleasantly surprised at how quickly transformation in the relationship has come about. So this was a running theme in virtually every meeting that I had at Capitol Hill. 

There was a point made: While everyone recognizes the importance of this Civil Nuclear Energy deal, there should be a debate about the various aspects of this proposed agreement. I pointed out that it was quite normal to have a debate on such an important issue. I also conveyed to them that I had just come from India where, in fact, a very intense debate has been raging over this agreement for the past several weeks. So we are not surprised that there is debate and we are not surprised that there are questions that may be raised, clarifications which may be sought. But the most important thing is that we believe that we have very satisfactory answers to the questions that have been raised or the other concerns that have been expressed. So after these meetings, I feel very encouraged that once this agreement goes through in a sense of debate and discussion what will actually emerge is a much stronger support for this initiative.

Some people refer to the fact that this seems to be quite a major departure in our relationship, and I pointed out the fact that there are several major departures in our relationship. This was just one of the other major departures. I also pointed out that in looking at this agreement, we should put it in the context of the overall India – United States relationship, and I think that just this aspect was appreciated by all the interlocutors whom I met.

So all in all, this has been a very productive visit, as I said, and I go back with a much better sense of where we stand on the agreement. I also had an opportunity to touch base with my other interlocutors on some other very important aspects of our relationship, as I mentioned to you, on the energy side, on the economic and commercial side, and in the coming months we will see very great things happening in the bilateral relationship. 

Thank you very much.

Question: You met Mr. Henry Hyde and Tom Lantos, and Mr. Hyde is someone, while introducing the deal on behalf of the president has said that he may have to have certain possible conditions, and your diplomatic vis a vis has said that the ideas are fine if they could strengthen the agreement. If you could speak to that, what Mr. Hide gave you a sense of what these ideas are, you did say that you were encouraged and also Mr. Lantos’s continuing conversation on Iran. On the Senate side you met with two of the Democrats, two of the Democrats who could probably make a difference, but none of the Democrats have still co-sponsored the legislation, it has been just a few Republicans, if that’s the kind of sense got from Barrack Obama and Joe Biden.

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran: That’s a tall order. I think I am lost somewhere. First of all, let me say that none of the meetings I went into a negotiation war, in the sense that this, unless this is researched it will not receive support, or this particular aspect should be added. Nobody in fact referred to that. What people did say was that they attached great importance to India – United States relationship. They also appreciate that this particular agreement is very important. But they have some concerns. Those concerns relate to for example non proliferation. What would it do to the non proliferation regime? In some cases there was a sense: Does this mean that India’s strategic program will somehow get a boost? So there were general concerns of this kind expressed. Nobody mentioned to me that they were contemplating any amendments or contemplating improvements. They did say that this is something that is important and requires debate, which I conceded immediately, because I think that in democracies there should be debate. As far as those concerns that have been raised, I gave them our perspective. I do not believe that this undermines in anyway our goal of promoting non proliferation. I pointed out India’s long standing record of restraint, of responsibility and therefore, there should not be any apprehensions of this kind. 

I would also like to mention that these are early days yet. Whether or not there would be co-sponsors from the democratic side or not, I think results we have is - yes, there would be, as we go further into the debate.

Question: And did you …. Lantos’s concerns on Iran?

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran: The concern expressed is about the visit to one of the Southern Indian Ports, and somehow, somebody has given the impression that India has engaged in training Iranian Navy, or there was some exercise which took place, which was completely misleading. This was one of several courtesy visits which take place from countries all over the globe. This was an Iranian naval training ship which made a port call which is a very normal activity, and so I, so I pointed out to Mr. Lantos that such apprehensions were completely misplaced.

Question: Also about Iran. Was there any concern raised by members of Congress or the Indian Administration about energy links between India and Iran? Never came up?

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran: They never came up in the discussions I had.

Question: India applied for membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) more than a year ago and subsequently there was a visit by NSG Troika to Delhi sometime at the end of 2004. At what stage is this application?

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran: There is no application from India to join the NSG

Question: But the visits of the Troika… 

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran: We have been having visits from the Troika for the informal exchange of views, but that doesn’t lead to our applying to the NSG. 

Question: This debate on the nuclear agreement here in United States, seems to also be getting mired in the domestic political debate. Congressmen are looking to the Congressional re-election this year, and the Democrats are looking at candidates for 2008. Supposing this drags on, what kind of time frame is India thinking of stretching towards United States Congress legislation on the nuclear deal and assuming that it is not ratified, how does that impact the bilateral relationship which is strengthening right now?

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran: As I mentioned to you, whether it was a Congressman from the Democratic side, or the Republican side, across the political spectrum here, there is very strong support for the India - United States partnership. Even with regard to the Civil Nuclear Energy co-operation agreement. I also pointed out to some of my interlocutors that this was not something which had been sort of just pulled out as a rabbit out of a hat. This is really the culmination of a process which has straddled both Democratic as well as Republican administrations. So there is ownership of this process by both the parties. I think that we feel this particular bi-partisan consensus which is behind the India – United States partnership is something that will also apply to the Civil Nuclear Energy Agreement. And I have also pointed out to my interlocutors that the Indo United States Nuclear Agreement should be seen as part and parcel of the much larger relationship which has developed between the two countries. It should not be taken out in isolation. So I am encouraged by the fact that there is such strong support on both sides for developing this relationship, and I see no reason why only the Civil Nuclear deal should be a casualty in terms of parties and politics. With regard to the timeline, obviously we would like this to be done as quickly as possible, but I have no means of knowing how the political processes here will work themselves out, so let us remain optimistic and hope that this will happen as early as possible. 

Lastly, what would happen if this does not go through? As I think I pointed out in the talk that I gave to the Heritage Foundation, that the India - United States relationship is very broad. It encompasses many areas of interaction in which considerable progress is already being made, so if this deal does not come through it is not as if everything else will fall by the wayside, but there is not doubt about the fact that because of the intense focus on this agreement, and because it has sort of come to symbolize the new partnership between India and the United States, obviously if it does not go through, there will be a loss in terms of the expectations which have been built up, the kind of enthusiasm which has been built up. There will be a loss. We should be cognoscent of that.

Question: I believe India has the bragging rights in Washington for having the largest caucus of some 180 lawmakers. Isn’t it astonishing that so few lawmakers have come forward to support this thing, even from the India caucus? Particularly after you have mentioned that this is the child of two administrations which has come through after several years of discussion – It’s almost as if nobody wants to be associated with this. Why is that?

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran: Number one, I don’t have that impression that nobody wants to be associated with this deal. I think that we have to meet with the members of the caucus and explain to them the importance of this deal, and I see no reason why we cannot mobilize enough support for this deal. So we are working on them. My visits have been part of that process, so give us time. 

Question: You said that debate should be encouraged on this nuclear deal, but both sides effectively have closed the doors to any revamping of the frame of the agreement which they say is very complexly built in a very compact space.

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran: Yes that’s true. I have already pointed out that what we have right now has emerged from exceedingly complex and tough negotiations. Therefore there is a very, very delicate state of balance. Now if you start making revisions and changes that balance is likely to be offset. So considering the fact that so much time and energy has been spent in reaching this point, I think that should be appreciated and the concerns which have been expressed in the congress, if those concerns are successfully met and answered, I think the deal should go ahead as it is. 

Question: You did say that your visit here was very productive and from here on the debates and discussions are only going to be intensified. Now do you think that there would be a possibility of you having to come back again and speak with people on the Hill to clarify any further doubts that might come up as these debates go on, or are you fairly…?

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran: I like coming to Washington so… (Laughter). We will wait and see. I would not like to say that another round is necessary. If it is necessary, and if I feel that it will be useful for me to come again, I will. 

Question: I am sure you are aware that the Pentagon recently completed a mass review called the Quadrennial Defense Review and then just a few weeks ago White House put out the National Security Strategy. Both these documents referred to “countries at a strategic crossroad” and they include India in that category of countries, and Russia and China being the other two. They also make the statement that the United States can shape the choice of these countries. I am wondering whether you agree with the notion that the United States can “shape the strategies” of countries like India. 

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran: Well let me say categorically that the only country that will shape India’s strategy is India itself. However, we do believe that choices that India will make or actions that India will take in its own best interest, given its own assessment of the global situation will in certain cases be in certain cases, convergent to the United States interest. Now in those areas, we can work together. But inevitably there will be areas where interests are differences in perception, but that is normal. But in balance it would appear that there are greater areas of convergence emerging between the two sides and we can work together on those areas.

Question: What is your overall sense about the concerns and misgivings of lawmakers ? Is it psychological or is it focused more on specific details?

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran: No specific details were mentioned. As I said, the focus was on non proliferation. That there is a global non proliferation regime and it has been an article of the faith for the United States to support that regime all these years, and would this agreement in some way or other undermine that regime. That is one of the most important concerns. And the second is whether or not this agreement would in some way would lead to expansion of India’s nuclear weapons program in a manner that might have other implications.

Question: There are concerns, but these concerns could possibly turn round into conditions. One gets that impression from speaking to the lawmakers from both Senate and Congress. In that scenario, would the Government of India be willing to compromise and reconsider, or would you stick to the original draft of the agreement?

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran: As I mentioned time and again, what has emerged out of these negotiations has been a very delicate balance. We have been through extraordinarily difficult and complex agreements, I should know, because I have been involved in these negotiations, and therefore I would very strongly hope that that balance is not disturbed. 

Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen.