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N-deal close to being real

Rice spent much of the day at congressional hearings.

india Updated: Apr 06, 2006 16:04 IST

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appears to have won support from crucial lawmakers on a landmark US plan to share civilian nuclear technology with India.

Rice spent much of Wednesday at back-to-back congressional hearings, working to convince often skeptical lawmakers that the pact would help sate the massive energy needs of a country, India, that she said always has managed its nuclear technologies responsibly.

Rice's marathon performance attests to the importance the Bush administration places on a deal it promotes as the cornerstone of a new strategic relationship emerging after decades of occasional hostility between India and the United States.

Rice, a member of President George W Bush's Republican Party, won praise from members of both parties for her testimony.

Republican Rep Henry Hyde told her that "regardless of one's position on this initiative, the impression you've left is a positive one, uniformly."

For the deal to become a reality, Congress must exempt India from US laws that restrict trade with countries that have not submitted to full nuclear inspections.

New Delhi has refused to sign the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and critics fear Bush's plan would give outlaw countries an excuse to build nuclear weapons programs using imported civilian nuclear technology.

During Wednesday's hearings, senior Democrats, including Rep Tom Lantos and Senators Joseph Biden and John Kerry, signalled they were inclined to vote for the agreement.

"It comes down to a simple bet we're making," Biden said. "It's a bet that India appreciates, as much as we do, that the two nations have the potential to be the anchors for stability and security in the world going into the 21st century."

Lantos said that "if we fail to seize this opportunity, the door will slam shut and undo much of the good work" the United States has done to improve relations with India.

Republican Sen Richard Lugar, a longtime non-proliferation advocate, praised the plan for allowing more inspections by the UN nuclear watchdog agency.

He also noted, however, that "it would not prevent India from expanding its nuclear arsenal."

Several lawmakers expressed strong misgivings, including Democratic Sen Russ Feingold, who said, "I fear that this deal could end up making our world less safe rather than more safe."

Others questioned whether the deal could lead to other countries making their own exceptions to international non-proliferation agreements: China, for instance, making an exception for Pakistan, or Russia making an exception for Iran.

"You've really opened up a Pandora's box in terms of pressure on others to act in similar ways" as the United States, said Republican Rep. Jim Leach.

Considered a major US policy shift, the plan calls for the United States to share nuclear technology and fuel with India to help power its rapidly growing economy.

India, for its part, agreed to allow UN inspections of its civilian nuclear reactors. India's nuclear weapons facilities would be off limits.

Critics say the plan could weaken decades of non-proliferation efforts.

Rice rejected that. "Nothing we or any other potential international suppliers provide to India under this initiative will enhance its military capacity or add to its military stockpile," she said.

In both the House and the Senate, lawmakers questioned India's relationship with Iran.

"Iran is the most troubling aspect of this deal," said Republican Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. In a tense exchange with Democratic Sen Barbara Boxer on port calls that Iranian vessels have made on India, Rice acknowledged that India has some "low-level military-to-military contacts with Iran."

But, Rice said, "The United States has made very clear to India that we have concerns about their relationship with Iran."

"I just think your words are a bit hollow," Boxer responded. "This deal has to have more checks and balances."