Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Congress Wednesday to defend the Bush administration's nuclear accord with India, which she said is a "strategic achievement" that would strengthen nuclear non-proliferation efforts. She ran into skeptical questioning from Democrats who said lenient U.S. treatment of India might encourage would-be nuclear weapons states.
The secretary's testimony before key congressional committees began a new, more intensive phase of the administration's effort to win approval for the India nuclear deal, which would allow India access to U.S. civilian nuclear technology in return for a pledge to open its non-military nuclear facilities to international inspections.
The agreement, concluded a month ago during President Bush's visit to India, has drawn a mixed reaction in Congress, split largely down partisan lines.
Many Republicans welcome the accord as advancing a growing partnership with India.
Democrats are concerned that it may suggest a U.S. double standard, accepting India's status as a nuclear weapons power despite its refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, at the same time the administration is trying to curb the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.
Opening a day-long set of hearings with an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary Rice said the agreement, requiring congressional amendment of a 50-year-old non-proliferation law, is a strategic achievement that will cement the U.S. relationship with India, a rising global power.
She said it would strengthen the international non-proliferation regime by putting 65 percent of India's nuclear plants under international inspections, a share that will grow over the years as new power plants come on line.
She rejected suggestions it would fuel a nuclear arms race in South Asia, saying that is solely a function of the regional political and military situation. And she dismissed any parallel between India's nuclear program and those of Iran and North Korea.
"Iran and especially North Korea are of course closed, non-democratic societies," said Rice. "India is a democracy. In fact, India is increasingly doing its part to support the international community's efforts to curb the dangerous nuclear ambitions of Iran. In sum, the U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation initiative is a strategic achievement. It's good for America. It's good for India, and it's good for the international community."
The ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, said he was inclined to support the agreement. But he also said the Bush administration is making a gamble that future Indian governments will live up to the terms of the agreement, and if they do not he suggested that the entire global framework for containing nuclear weapons development will be at risk.
"I respectfully suggest that if this goes through, and we are wrong about their intentions, they will have mortgaged the 21st century literally in a way that few nations will be held accountable for having done," said Biden. "They will have squandered, and I don't anticipate this, but they will have squandered what I think to be an opportunity to build a new century. I mean I literally think it is that fundamental."
Republican George Allen of Virginia, however, called the agreement a good bet on a partnership with the world's largest democracy. He said it could help stabilize troubled world energy markets by giving India advanced nuclear power capacity at the same time helping improve the environment, given India's current dependence on high-sulfur coal.
But there was other criticism. Maryland Democrat Paul Sarbanes said the terms of the legislation would require Congress to cede excessive authority to the executive branch in monitoring Indian compliance.
California's Barbara Boxer, a leading critic of administration foreign policy, joined House Democratic colleague Tom Lantos in raising concern about Indian military cooperation with Iran, including port calls in India this month by Iranian warships.
Secretary Rice said Indian authorities had given assurances their country was not training Iranian military personnel and that their military contacts were low level. She also said India's recent vote in the International Atomic Energy Agency was a key in getting the issue of Iran's nuclear program referred to the U.N. Security Council.