The Bush administration came under heavy criticism yesterday by Republican and Democratic members of Congress for signing a major nuclear deal with India, which has expressed support for Iran's right to a nuclear energy program despite U.S. efforts to pressure Tehran into giving it up.
Members of the House International Relations Committee also chided two administration officials for reaching the India deal, which would reverse decades of U.S. policy and could require significant changes to U.S. laws, without first consulting Congress.
"You chose an initiative for which you may not be able to deliver, and you chose to make this initiative without, to my knowledge, any serious prior consultation with the Congress," complained Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa).
The India deal, announced at the White House in July, would for the first time provide New Delhi with sensitive civilian nuclear technology. That would create an exception to the U.S. ban on nuclear assistance to any country that does not accept international monitoring of its nuclear facilities. India has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires such oversight, and conducted its first nuclear detonation in 1974.
Though the White House has committed to the agreement, it must win approval of Congress and international organizations that restrict the sale and transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to countries such as India.
R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said the administration is eager to consult with Congress now and said President Bush views the new relationship with India, a rising regional power and the world's largest democracy, as vital.
Privately, administration officials have said the deal was part of a White House strategy to accelerate New Delhi's rise as a regional counterweight to China.
Several members of the committee welcomed stronger U.S.-India ties but not at any price.
"It is critical that we consider the far-reaching implications of a full nuclear cooperation with India and how a de facto recognition of India as a nuclear weapons state would undermine U.S. nonproliferation policy," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).
Panel members were particularly angered by India's apparent support for Iran's nuclear program. Iran says its program, built in secret over 18 years, is for nuclear energy, not bombs. But the scale and clandestine nature of the program, uncovered in 2002, have fueled certainty in the Bush administration that Iran is using it as a cover to build weapons.
Last week, Indian officials expressed support for Iran's energy program at a time when the White House is trying to drum up international pressure on Iran.
"Did we ignore the most important nuclear proliferation issue facing America today, namely Iran, in negotiating a nuclear treaty with India?" Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) asked Burns and Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
Joseph said India's stand on the Iran issue had not come up in negotiations and that the administration faces an "uphill battle" to persuade New Delhi and others to support U.S. policy on Iran.
"There's a great deal of resistance, not just on the part of India but on the part of many governments who don't seem to place, quite frankly, nonproliferation and Iran, a nuclear-armed Iran, at the top of their priority list."
Burns said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would raise the Iran issue with the Indian foreign minister next week in New York.
The Bush administration has had difficulty mustering support for the India deal. "The U.S. gave everything India wanted and got little in return," said George Perkovich, author of a new study of the deal for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They framed the deal as necessary to cement a strategic partnership with India, and then this partner turns around and sides with Iran. That's not very strategic."