Iranian Ships at India Ports Threatens U.S. Nuke Deal

Two Iranian ships have visited ports in India, possibly complicating the Bush administration's quest for congressional approval of a landmark deal to share nuclear technology with India.

The State Department confirmed on Monday reports that two ships with Iranian naval cadets had made port calls in what spokesman Adam Ereli described as a "limited type of event."

They were not training programs and the visits do not suggest India training or contributing to Iran's military capabilities, Ereli said.

Iranian naval vessels visit a number of countries besides India that are friendly to the United States, Ereli said. The port calls, he said, should not call into question India's commitment to stopping the spread of nuclear technology and "its strong record as a responsible international actor," the spokesman said.

In a preview of the line Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will take over two days of House and Senate testimony, the spokesman acknowledged the deal had generated some concern on Capitol Hill.

Rice and other top administration officials, who have been buttonholing members of Congress for weeks, hope to build a level of consensus for the agreement, Ereli said.

"We want to ensure that all their questions are answered and that there is strong support for what the president sees as a major initiative that is both good for nonproliferation and good for the region," Ereli said.

He also said the deal would be good for "our partner," India, and for American commercial interests.

Congress is being asked to exempt India from U.S. laws that restrict trade with countries, such as India, that have not submitted to full nuclear inspections.

A key provision of the agreement approved last month by President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh permits India to buy foreign-made nuclear reactors if it opens its civilian facilities to international inspection.

"India can be trusted," Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who played a role in the negotiations, has said.

Ereli on Monday rejected the notion that the administration cut the deal with India to help build up the world's largest democracy as a counterweight to a rising China.

"The driving force behind this was to bring a nuclear program under international safeguards and to help India develop its energy sector in a way that was consistent with both nonproliferation concerns as well as contribute to international stability and international investment," Ereli said.

Critics, including former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., have raised concerns the deal could promote a regional arms race with China and Pakistan and make it more difficult for the United States to win support for sanctions against such countries as Iran and North Korea.

Rice is due to testify Tuesday before a House subcommittee and on Wednesday to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House International Relations Committee.