Rice to Lay Out U.S.-India Nuclear Deal Before Some Skeptical Lawmakers

An Iranian ship visit to Kochi, India, has raised apprehension on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers will consider President Bush's proposed civilian nuclear partnership with New Delhi.
An Iranian ship visit to Kochi, India, has raised apprehension on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers will consider President Bush's proposed civilian nuclear partnership with New Delhi. (Associated Press)
By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

When President Bush announced a new phase in U.S.-India relations last month in New Delhi, he was not the only foreign visitor to attract attention. A day after his arrival, two Iranian naval ships, carrying several hundred sailors, docked at the Indian port of Kochi to begin five days of joint exercises, part of an extensive agreement Tehran and New Delhi signed in 2003.

The port call -- and the broader issue of India's military, scientific and economic ties with Iran -- have raised apprehension on Capitol Hill, where members are weighing an effort by the Bush administration to form its own strategic partnership with New Delhi.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will address those concerns and others when she testifies today before the House and Senate foreign relations panels on details of the unfinished agreement, in which the United States would provide India with civilian nuclear technology.

She faces pressure from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, some of whom are pushing for changes to the deal out of concern about nuclear proliferation. In a letter yesterday, a bipartisan group of nuclear experts urged lawmakers not to authorize technology transfers until India stops producing nuclear weapons material, as the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China are believed to have done.

In response, some administration officials said Rice could announce a new push for an international treaty to end production of all fissile material. Negotiations have been at a standstill since the administration announced two years ago that it could not support the kind of accord that had been on the table.

Last July, Bush agreed to give India access, for the first time, to civilian nuclear assistance, breaking with decades of U.S. policy that kept sensitive nuclear technologies from countries that have not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

For the Bush administration, the break was seen as a worthy tradeoff in pursuit of a strategy to accelerate India's rise as a regional counterweight to China. But the agreement would also give India the ability to increase its nuclear arsenal. The terms took Congress by surprise, and lawmakers asked India to separate its civilian and military programs to guarantee that no U.S. technology would be used for weapons.

Last month, Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed on a separation plan, but Congress has not yet seen it.

Administration officials say the deal addresses nonproliferation concerns because India has agreed to open some facilities to U.N. nuclear inspections. Perhaps more important, they say, is that the world's largest democracy does not pose a nonproliferation threat.

"India has an excellent nonproliferation record," Rice said last month in promoting the deal. India is not tainted by the kind of nuclear black-market scandal that Pakistan suffered when a senior government official was caught selling nuclear components to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

But the Bush administration's actions suggest it does not see India's record as blemish-free.

The administration has imposed sanctions on two Indian companies accused of supplying Iran's nuclear program. Both companies have protested the sanctions but remain on a list in the Federal Registry. In September, two Indian nuclear scientists were also accused of providing Tehran with technology that could contribute to "the development of weapons of mass destruction." The order against one was later rescinded, but the second remains banned from travel to the United States.

India's support for Iran in diplomatic forums has also caused concern. Last September, after the U.S.-India deal was announced, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) -- a strong supporter of India -- criticized Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns during a hearing when Burns said it was unclear whether India would support U.S. efforts to pressure Iran. Lantos urged India to do so to win broader support in Congress.

"We listened carefully to Lantos and his colleagues on the Hill and told the Indians that they had to be supportive of our efforts to isolate Iran, and they did so two weeks later," Burns said in an interview.

Lantos said yesterday: "I have every intention of voting for this deal. But my support is very much contingent upon the Iran-India relationship, and I have served notice that, given the nature of the current regime in Tehran, a proper policy vis-a-vis Iran is the sine qua non of my support." Lantos said he did not see how India could have equal ties to Iran and the United States, and said he registered his displeasure over the naval visit last week with India.

State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli said Washington regretted the timing of the Iranian port call, but added: "Indian-Iranian relations are not of the scope and breadth and depth to call into question the principles that underline our agreement."

It is unclear when Congress will consider the changes to the law needed to complete the India deal. The administration wants Congress to act before summer, but some in Congress say the complex matter will probably not be taken up until after the November elections.

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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