By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 29, 2006; A14
The Bush administration will impose sanctions on two Indian firms for selling missile parts to Iran, government officials said yesterday, acknowledging privately that the secret decision should have been shared with the House before it voted this week to support U.S. plans to sell nuclear technology to New Delhi.
It is not the first time Indian companies have been sanctioned for supplying Iran's suspected weapons programs. But the timing of the sanctions, which were not revealed before the vote and are being imposed during fighting between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia, elicited angry responses from Democrats and arms-control experts yesterday.
Bush administration officials have said that Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon are using Iranian-made rockets against Israeli civilians, leading some Democrats to question whether Indian companies may be involved in manufacturing the rockets.
Under the Iran-Syria Nonproliferation Act, the president is required to report to Congress periodically. The July 1 report is overdue, according to administration officials, because the State Department staff is backed up. The report identifies illicit weapons suppliers to both countries. Officials declined to identify the two companies in India selling to Iran but said both worked with missile-related technologies.
One official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the issue is highly sensitive for negotiators still working on the India nuclear deal and that the government had not yet told officials in New Delhi of the decision to impose sanctions on the two companies.
Administration officials said they briefed selected lawmakers on the impending sanctions. But Democratic lawmakers accused the White House of deliberately concealing the information until the House voted Wednesday overwhelmingly in favor of the U.S. plan to supply India, for the first time, with sensitive nuclear technologies. The Senate has not scheduled a vote on guidelines for the U.S.-India deal.
"The Bush administration deliberately deceived Congress by withholding information about these violations by Indian companies before we voted," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). Markey had proposed an amendment to the U.S.-India nuclear bill that dealt with transfers of missile technology from India to Iran, but it was defeated.
At a congressional hearing last week, Francis C. Record, the acting assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, was asked about the report. He testified that he did not know why it was late. He also said that he did not recall whether any Indian companies were named in the report.
The pending nuclear deal with India would reverse years of U.S. policies aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. It would give India access to civilian nuclear assistance even though it has refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
For the Bush administration, the reversal is seen as a worthwhile trade-off in pursuit of a strategy to accelerate India's rise as a regional counterweight to China. But the agreement also would give India the ability to increase its nuclear arsenal. The terms took Congress by surprise, and, although the House supported the broad framework, the deal remains far from complete.
In an effort to sell the deal to lawmakers, U.S. officials have stressed that despite India's other alliances, the world's largest democracy does not pose a proliferation risk or a threat to the United States.
"India has an excellent nonproliferation record," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last month in promoting the deal. India is not tainted by the kind of nuclear black-market scandal that Pakistan experienced 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 free of blemishes.
On the same day that President Bush was in India this March to announce progress on the nuclear deal, 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 -- has raised apprehension on Capitol Hill and among nuclear specialists.
"The Indians are building a port in Iran, they are building roads, they have joint military exercises," said Henry D. Sokolski, who runs the conservative-leaning Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. "The Indians, for a variety of reasons, see utility in doing risky things with Iran."
Last year, at the height of the U.S.-India negotiations, two other Indian companies were sanctioned for supplying material to Iran's suspected chemical weapons program. The companies have protested but remain on a sanctions list in the Federal Register.
Last September, two Indian nuclear scientists were 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 traveling to the United States.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.