US Congress expresses growing unease at India’s ties with Iran

US Congress expresses growing unease at India’s ties with Iran

Washington: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has nothing to do with the nuclear agreement between the US and India but may end up scuttling it anyway. India’s willingness to keep doing business with Ahmadinejad’s government is jeopardizing US congressional approval of the accord negotiated by US President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Democrats and Republicans who backed the deal a year ago are upset at India’s pursuit of a natural gas pipeline, military training programme and other projects with Iran that they say undermine efforts to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

Their apprehensions, on top of political resistance in India, threaten Bush’s quest to deepen ties with the world’s most populous democracy. The US Chamber of Commerce estimates the India deal might bring $100 billion (Rs3.93 trillion) in nuclear technology business to companies such as General Electric Co.

Nuclear inspections

The most direct benefit for India would be additional energy to sustain its economic growth, now exceeding 9% annually. In return, India would submit most of its nuclear reactors to international inspections to ensure they aren’t being used to produce weapons material. The US Congress supported the trade-off in December; the House voted 330-59 and the Senate agreed by voice vote to exempt India from a ban on nuclear exports to countries that haven’t signed the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Indian and American negotiators completed the final accord, called the 123 Agreement, in July. It still must be approved by US lawmakers, but that’s by no means a certainty. Three members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who had voted for the legislation in December co-sponsored a resolution last month expressing concern that the final negotiated agreement might not set enough conditions on India’s dealings.

The accord must “be considered in the context of the growing military, political and commercial relationship between India and Iran at a time when responsible nations are curtailing their dealings with Iran," US representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the committee’s top Republican, said in August. She co-sponsored the resolution with Democrat Howard Berman of California and Republican Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska.

The US, which accuses Iran of enriching uranium to develop nuclear weapons, is pressuring other countries to impose more sanctions unilaterally and at the United Nations. Iran says its nuclear programme is intended to generate energy.

House foreign affairs committee chairman Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, joined Ros-Lehtinen, Berman and the chairmen and senior Republicans of two subcommittees in a letter to Singh six months ago. They expressed “grave concern" on issues including “India’s strengthening relationship with Iran." One of the subcommittee chairmen was Democrat Gary Ackerman of New York, singled out for praise from Bush when he signed the law in December, as one of those who led the effort to pass it.

India has other hurdles to clear before US lawmakers even get around to giving the agreement their final blessing.

Singh, 75, told Bush last month that the agreement, which would allow US exports of civilian nuclear technology to India for the first time in three decades, might sink under the weight of India’s own domestic opposition. Parties in Singh’s ruling coalition argue that conditions in the accord would weaken the country’s foreign policy.

Singh, who said on 30 October that the accord is delayed but isn’t dead, is currently negotiating to get his communist allies to agree to the accord.

Rahul Chhabra, a spokesman for the Indian embassy in Washington, said India’s ties with Iran are addressed in previous statements by external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee.

‘A major consumer’

“Iran is a very important producer of hydrocarbons, and we are a major consumer," Mukherjee said during a February visit to Tehran. “Good relations between India and Iran not only benefit our two countries but also impact on the entire region." India says questions about Iran’s nuclear programme should be resolved through negotiations rather than with threats of force or economic punishment.

Ron Somers, president of the Washington-based US-India Business Council, whose members include GE, said the overriding goal of a closer relationship with India will eventually prevail among US lawmakers.

India’s historical links with Iran and thirst for energy make it unlikely it will drop its contacts with Ahmadinejad’s government, says Karl Inderfurth, a professor of international relations at George Washington University in Washington and a former US official who dealt with the region. Inderfurth has “no doubt" that support in the House and Senate is “as strong today as it has been."

Kartik Goyal and Cherian Thomas in New Delhi, Bill Varner in New York and Emmet Oliver in London contributed to this story.