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Rediff.com  » News » Powell put on mat in Congressional hearing over India's Iran ties

Powell put on mat in Congressional hearing over India's Iran ties

February 08, 2012 11:16 IST
United States's concern on the exacerbating confrontation with Iran, and India's perceived reticence to join in the US-led paranoia against Teheran, was on full display during the nomination hearing of career diplomat Nancy J Powell to be the next American ambassador to New Delhi.

The ranking Republican on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Richard Lugar, fired the first salvo when he told Powell, "In recent days, press reports indicate that India's Oil and Natural Gas Corporation has come under pressure to finalise a service contract for natural gas production with Iran," and asked her for her "thoughts on an Indian company's involvement in Iran's energy sector, particularly something of this significance?"

Powell, being the quintessential diplomat, and attempting to be as circumspect as possible, replied, "Iran and India have a long tradition of trade across energy and other fields. It is one that is clearly a part of our sanctions regime, that we are hoping to see it significantly reduced."

She then pointed out that on Monday, in a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, visiting Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai had "indicated that -- the current efforts to diversify India's sources of oil and petroleum and a reduction in their use of Iranian oil to 10 percent or less."

Powell said that she would "certainly -- if confirmed -- I know that this is going to be one of the issues that I will be spending a great deal of time on in working with the Iranian sanctions legislation with our own policies and with the Indians to work with them."

But if she believed that was the end of it, the ambassador-designate may have been guilty of wishful thinking.

Democratic Senator, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, noting his concern regarding India's stand to eschew isolating Iran, said, "I'm a strong believer that this relationship between the United States and India is a critical one, but I am sure, as you are aware, in December, I along with other colleagues sponsored legislation in the Congress by amendment that the Senate passed unanimously and the president signed into law with reference to comprehensive sanctions on the financial institutions of the Central Bank of Iran."

Menendez also pointed out, "The Indian government, which is one of Iran's largest crude customers, seems to be rebuking the sanctions and looking for workarounds, including considering payments in gold and transactions that detour around the central bank of Iran which, at the end of the day, still is helping the Iranian government have the resources to fuel their nuclear ambitions."

Menendez said, "For our sanctions to be effective, it's really crucial that all nations, particularly democratic nations like India, work together to confront Iran and insist that it terminate its effort to achieve nuclear weapons capability."

"What is your view of the Indian government's rationale to achieve -- I mean, to support the Iranians in this regard?" he asked Powell, and added, "And if you are confirmed as our ambassador, will you carry the message to New Delhi that this is a policy priority for the United States and that we will not hesitate, as appropriate, to pursue the law as it exists?"

Powell replied, "Senator, certainly, if confirmed, I understand and appreciate that this is going to be a very important topic and one of those that I will be dealing with very seriously and very early in my tenure."

But she said, "Approaching it, I think, perhaps a little bit differently than you did, but to recognise that Iran shares with us -- excuse me -- India shares with us a desire to see a non-nuclear state in Iran."

Powell pointed out that "they have supported us in the International Atomic Energy Agency four times. We continue to have a very important dialogue at the most senior levels of the US government. And I fully intend to be a part of that dialogue. I believe that making sure that there is clarity on what the legislation and the US sanctions mean, what they -- their implications are for India is one step. Also, looking to make sure that we understand what actions India is taking."

Menendez, apparently not fully convinced that she would take it up strongly with New Delhi, while noting, "I appreciate that," said, "This is incredibly important to us. If countries like India are basically going to pay in gold or find other ways to circumvent the sanctions, then while I appreciate what you said about India sharing our goals, well, you could share our goals, but you could ultimately continue to facilitate the resources that are necessary for Iran to achieve its nuclear power."

"And so we need more than their goodwill or sharing our goals. We need their actions to join us and the rest of the international community in that regard. And I hope you will, if confirmed, and in short order, hopefully, be in India that this will be one of your top priorities."

Menendez then obviously intent to get Powell on the record, asked, "Would you tell us on the committee that this will be one of your top priorities when you get there?"

Powell reiterated, "Most certainly, it will be one of the top priorities."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC