April 4, 2006

Lawmaker backs India deal as Congress mulls changes

By Carol Giacomo, Diplomatic Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A leading Democratic lawmaker on
Tuesday voiced strong support for a landmark nuclear energy
deal with India and predicted the U.S. Congress would
eventually approve the controversial accord.

California Rep. Tom Lantos, in an interview with Reuters,
said lawmakers are discussing possible amendments to the
accord, which would let India buy foreign nuclear energy
reactors, fuel and other technology for the first time in 30
years and underscore a historic new U.S.-India partnership.

"I will urge my colleagues that while we need to be fully
aware of all the shortcomings, and we have to do everything in
our power to rectify those, that is the wrong prism through
which to view the agreement," said the senior Democrat on the
House of Representatives International Relations Committee.

With the United States and India moving toward an historic
partnership, the agreement is "a breakthrough, and on balance,
clearly in the U.S. national interest," Lantos added.

He spoke as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepared to
defend the agreement on Wednesday before the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee and the House International Relations

Lantos and other congressional sources said Rice's
testimony would be key to rebutting criticism from
non-proliferation experts that has jeopardized the pact.

Changes in U.S. law and international rules are necessary
for the agreement to go forward.

Rice "can make an enormous difference in gaining support
for the legislation," Lantos said. Asked if he expected the
deal to eventually pass, he replied: "I do."

But Ron Somers, president of the U.S.-India Business
Council, was concerned about amendments.

"If too many conditions are added or if the deal starts
getting tinkered with, it could unravel very quickly and the
overall deal could collapse," Somers told Reuters.

"This would be devastating to the overall trust and
partnership" between the two countries, he added.

Lantos said he has seen a list of proposed "improvements"
to the deal but declined to elaborate.

"I am very strongly in favor of maximum congressional
oversight within a realistic framework, but we can't tell our
negotiators to go back to the Indians and obtain concessions,"
Lantos said. Neither side got all it wanted, he added.

After the agreement was concluded last July, Lantos warned
the deal could be in jeopardy if New Delhi did not help
pressure Iran to halt its nuclear program. The West accuses
Iran of seeking weapons; Tehran says it is pursuing atomic

India sided with the United States, Europe and other states
in key votes of the International Atomic Energy Agency board
finding Iran in non-compliance with international obligations
and reporting its case to the U.N. Security Council.

But India last month raised U.S. eyebrows by hosting a port
visit by two Iranian navy ships. Lantos said he discussed this
with Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and is "satisfied no
substantive naval training took place."

But Lantos also told Saran "the symbolism (of the ship
visit) was all wrong" and said India must not only avoid
"negative symbolism" but cooperate with the United States
whenever possible.

Meanwhile, non-proliferation experts, in a letter to
lawmakers. proposed that Congress only permit nuclear transfers
after the United States certifies India has stopped producing
fissile material.

If after five years this condition is not met, then nuclear
transfers should proceed, they said, arguing this would at
least temporarily reduce the chance of a South Asia arms race.