| Rice on Capitol Hill. (AP)
Washington, April 5: US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, normally confident, erudite and knowledgeable in her field, wilted under questioning about the Indo-US nuclear deal on Capitol Hill today as it became clear that Senators were less concerned about the content of the deal than with losing their power to regulate American nuclear trade with India.
The first hearing on American legislation to facilitate the nuclear deal got off to a good start in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with Rice offering a bait to the panel’s members that US help to strengthen India’s civilian nuclear power capabilities will move New Delhi away from seeking oil and natural gas from Tehran.
But her strategy to win over wavering Senators to support the agreement with India quickly fell apart with several senior legislators objecting that the proposed amendments to the US Atomic Energy Act will replace them as arbiters of the deal, and instead, give that responsibility to the White House or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Senior Democrat Paul Sarbanes, the longest serving Senator in Maryland’s history, unsettled Rice and demolished her arguments by calling for the Senate to withhold its approval for the deal until India worked out an agreement with the IAEA on full-scope safeguards that is required under the agreement between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US president George W. Bush.
Sarbanes suggested that the Bush administration should use its existing powers for presidential waivers to conduct nuclear trade with India instead of approaching the Congress with fresh legislation.
But on the whole, the exercise in the committee today was a plus for India: John Kerry, the Democrat’s presidential candidate in 2004 and Joseph Biden, the senior-most Democrat on the panel, said they were inclined to support the bill.
Most Republicans expressed support for the legislation. If this momentum is kept up, the committee will send the bill to the full Senate, where it is very likely to pass if the Bush administration throws its full weight behind the amendment.
“The initiative will clearly enhance energy security,” Rice said in a poorly concealed bid to woo those Senators who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of disarmament but worry every day about the impact of high petrol prices on their chances of re-election.
“India is a nation of over a billion people with an economy growing at approximately 8 per cent each year. It has a massive and rapidly growing appetite for 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 US.”
As expected, Indo-Iranian relations burst onto the centre-stage of the proceedings.
California Democrat Barbara Boxer, an influential Jewish woman Senator, demanded that Washington should make it conditional on New Delhi to end all military relations with Tehran in return for the nuclear deal.
Several other Senators also raised the issue of a recent call by Iranian naval ships to Kochi, which the US state department has been trying to explain through the visit here of foreign secretary Shyam Saran last week.
Boxer pooh-poohed suggestions made by supporters of the Bush administration that the deal would persuade India to be a foil to China.
“I do not share the view that closer US-India ties will be a counterweight to China, which seems to be the unstated yet driving force behind this deal,” she told the committee.
India, she pointed out, was deepening and expanding its relations with China, adding “this type of thinking” within the administration “is not only outdated and dangerous, it flies in the face of reality”.