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Biden Administration in Ongoing Talks with U.S. Congress on High-Altitude Drone Deal Amid Pannun Investigation Concerns

In a diplomatic development, the Biden administration is actively engaged in discussions with the U.S. Congress regarding the high-altitude drone deal, which was initially announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington in 2023. Contrary to expectations of a routine approval, a report from online news portal The Wire suggests that certain U.S. lawmakers have put a hold on the deal, linking it to concerns surrounding the Pannun investigation.

The U.S. Embassy in India responded to the report, stating that the administration “continues to discuss with U.S. Congress the potential sale consistent with standard processes and policies guiding such arm sales decisions.” While indicating that Congressional clearance is still in progress, the response did not deny the reported hold on the sale by one or more U.S. lawmakers.

As part of the standard process, the State Department routinely engages foreign affairs committees before formal notification to address questions from committee staff, according to a U.S. Embassy spokesperson. The report surfaced following a recent visit to Delhi by senior U.S. State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Donald Lu, emphasizing the need for India to show progress in the high-level enquiry committee related to the Pannun case.

The investigation, led by the FBI and DEA, resulted in a charge-sheet against Indian national Nikhil Gupta. The case involves an alleged plot to target Khalistani separatists in the U.S. and Canada on behalf of a senior Indian security official. The case has drawn international attention, with U.S. lawmakers criticizing the Modi government during a Senate committee hearing in December 2023.

While the Arms Export Control Act provisions were suggested to restrict arms transfers to countries engaged in acts of intimidation, the objections over the drone deal remain undisclosed due to the secrecy around the process. The deal for 31 MQ-9B high-altitude long-endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) is estimated to cost India over $3 billion and is a significant component of the high-tech collaborations between the two countries.

The MQ-9B drones, aimed at bolstering the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities of the Indian Armed Forces, are part of key technological deals between the U.S. and India. The ongoing negotiations and concerns highlight the complexity of international arms deals and their intersection with geopolitical considerations.

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