- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2006

The Bush administration’s civil nuclear deal with India picked up some key support yesterday as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spent a full day on Capitol Hill defending the far-reaching accord.

California Rep. Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, said he planned to vote for the India deal, while senior Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including ranking member Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, said they were strongly inclined to support the agreement.

Mr. Biden said the nuclear deal represented a “simple bet” that the benefits of closer U.S.-Indian ties would outweigh the risks of nuclear proliferation, but he added, “I am probably going to support this.”

Miss Rice’s unusual testifying double-header — addressing both the Senate and House foreign affairs panels — was the administration’s most sustained public defense to date of the accord reached by Mr. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last month.

Under the agreement, the United States would lift a long-standing bar on nuclear trade and assistance to India in exchange for New Delhi agreeing to place its civilian nuclear facilities — although not its military nuclear sites — under international monitoring and inspection.

The accord requires Congress to amend U.S. atomic energy laws because India has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Miss Rice and other deal advocates say the agreement will move India closer to international norms on its nuclear programs, while bringing massive strategic, economic and environmental benefits for the United States through a closer relationship with one of the world’s most populous, fastest-growing democracies.

“This initiative is good for America, it is good for India, and it is good for the international community,” Miss Rice said.

But critics, such as Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said the agreement carves out a dangerous exception to international nonproliferation efforts, does little to curb India’s military nuclear program, and could lead Pakistan and other nations to build up their nuclear arsenals in response.

Miss Rice sparred with Mrs. Boxer and others over reports that India has stepped up its energy and military ties with Iran, even as it pursues the U.S. nuclear deal. New Delhi is considering a major new pipeline to obtain Iranian oil, and two Iranian naval ships visited the Indian port of Kochi last month as part of a joint training program.

Miss Rice said in the packed Senate hearing room that Indian officials had told her their military-to-military links with the hard-line Islamic regime in Iran were “low-level,” and she noted that India had backed a U.S.-led drive to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council over its nuclear weapons ambitions.

Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, said he still had reservations about the deal with India, but acknowledged, “I personally think that the geopolitics of this agreement make a lot of sense, and I suspect that’s a view shared by many at this table.”

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