Rice Downplays India's Iran Links
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has downplayed concerns about India's links with Iran as she lobbies Congress to support the controversial nuclear cooperation agreement struck between India and the United States last month. India has already rejected as "completely misplaced" any suggestion of a military training link with Iran.
But some U.S. lawmakers have raised questions about India's commercial and military relations with Iran, which faces possible sanctions after the U.N. Security Council issued a statement on March 29 demanding that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program. READ MORE
In a Senate hearing Wednesday on Washington's civilian nuclear deal with New Delhi, Rice said an assertion that India has been training Iranian sailors is "not right."
Rice said two Iranian warships had simply paid a port call on the southern Indian city of Kochi in March, and no military training was involved.
This followed an exchange with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, who told Rice the Iranian naval visit was "very disturbing" and the proposed deal with India needed to have more checks and balances.
India's Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, who was in Washington last week for talks with U.S. lawmakers, said he told Rep. Tom Lantos, D-California, on March 30 that his concerns about the Iranian ship visits were unfounded.
Saran told reporters last Friday that it was simply a courtesy visit and any suggestion of a joint training exercise was "completely misleading," according to the Press Trust of India.
Rice acknowledged the Iranian port calls and said the United States had already made its position known.
"The United States has made very clear to India that we have concerns about their relationship with Iran," she told the Senate hearing.
Ahead of Rice's appearance, U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the port visit by Iranian ships was "a limited type of event" and "do not suggest India training or contributing to Iran's military capabilities".
Indian media reports on March 7 quoted a navy press release as saying the two Iranian ships, carrying naval cadets, had arrived in Kochi for a "five-day training session." Kochi is the home of India's Southern Naval Command.
India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and U.S. President George W. Bush signed the civilian nuclear power deal on March 2 in New Delhi. The agreement was struck even though New Delhi has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has nuclear weapons.
Singh also hosted a visit to New Delhi by Iranian Vice President Isfandiar Rahim Mashaee in late March. The two agreed to strengthen cooperation, especially in the energy sector. India is proposing to take gas from Iran via a pipeline that will pass through Pakistan.
Rice sought to assure Congress on Wednesday that the landmark plan to share nuclear technology with India for its civilian program would not undercut efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, The Associated Press reported.
"Clearly, this agreement does not constrain India's nuclear weapons program. That was not its purpose," Rice told a House committee. "Neither, however, as some critics have suggested, does it enhance India's capability to build nuclear weapons."
Rice said the agreement would enhance energy security, noting India was now the world's sixth largest consumer of energy.
"Diversifying India's energy sector will help it to meet its ever increasing needs and more importantly, ease its reliance on hydrocarbons and unstable sources like Iran. This is good for the United States," she said in testimony to the House committee.
In the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats alike expressed serious reservations over the plan and criticized what they called the Bush administration's failure to explain its details to lawmakers earlier, AP reported.
"It is my view that this is in trouble here," said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-New York, who supports the plan but criticized how the administration has handled it.
The administration needs Congress to change, or approve an exception to, the law that bans civilian nuclear cooperation with countries that have not submitted to full nuclear inspections, AP reported.
Despite concerns, some lawmakers from both political parties indicated they would back the plan because of an overall goal of strengthening the U.S.-India relationship.
"This is a very good bet for our country," AP quoted Sen. George Allen, R-Virginia, as saying.
Two senior Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden of Delaware and John Kerry of Massachusetts, signaled they were inclined to vote for the agreement, albeit reluctantly, AP reported.