The Bush administration has reassured members of Congress that an agreement on nuclear cooperation with India will not harm U.S. efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. However, U.S. officials appearing before the House International Relations Committee faced tough questions from lawmakers concerned about the long-range impact of the accord, and India's position on Iran's nuclear intentions.
When he visited Washington last July, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told a joint meeting of Congress that India has an impeccable record on non-proliferation.
"We have adhered scrupulously to every rule and canon in this area," said Mr. Singh.
The Indian leader was warmly received, but lawmakers were concerned about the U.S.-Indian agreement on civil nuclear cooperation announced during his visit.
India is not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and members of Congress want the Bush administration to continue to prod New Delhi toward joining it.
They also want India to fully support nuclear nonproliferation efforts, in particular the U.S. position regarding so-called rogue states such as Iran, which Washington says is developing a nuclear weapon.
At Thursday's hearing, lawmakers sharply criticized recent comments by India's foreign minister during a visit to Tehran, comments that raised questions about New Delhi's support of U.S. efforts to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council.
Congressman Tom Lantos issued this blunt warning:
"New Dehli must understand how important their cooperation and support is to U.S. initiatives to counter the nuclear threat from Iran," he said. "That includes supporting our efforts to refer Iran's 18 years of violations of the Nonproliferation Treaty to the U.N. Security Council."
Undersecretary Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns says the Bush administration believes India shares U.S. opposition to the emergence of Iran as a nuclear weapons state, adding U.S. officials are holding further discussions with India.
"It is our strong hope that we can achieve with India, with Russia and China and the other countries, an agreement that all of us have to put some pressure on the Iranian government to convince it come back to the negotiations with the Europeans," said Mr. Burns.
But given the statements by India and other governments, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Robert Joseph acknowledges the United States will have what he calls an uphill battle on the issue of referring Iran to the Security Council.
"We have our task ahead of us," said Mr. Joseph. "It is, it seems to me, critically important for not only the vitality of the [nonproliferation] regime, but the very legitimacy of the nuclear nonproliferation regime, that we move this forward to the Security Council."
Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is sponsoring Iran sanctions legislation in the House of Representatives, warns against viewing the U.S.-India partnership in a vacuum.
"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 and potentially create a negative and damaging domino effect," she explained.
Republican Congressman Jim Leach criticized the administration for not consulting with Congress before the U.S.-India agreement was announced.
"The initiative you have chosen is one that requires an act of Congress," he noted. "And you chose to make this initiative without, to my knowledge, any serious prior consultation with the Congress."
Responding to one Republican congressman who asked why the United States is not considering a similar civil nuclear cooperation accord with India's nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan, Undersecretary of State Joseph cited Pakistan's record on proliferation, a reference to the activities of Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan, who played a significant role in fostering North Koreas nuclear program.
Undersecretary Burns told lawmakers Washington hopes a meeting between Indian Prime Minister Singh and Pakistan's President Musharraf at the United Nations will further the process of rapprochement between the two nuclear states.