WASHINGTON -- Massachusetts congressman Edward Markey yesterday accused the Bush administration of delaying an announcement that the United States plans to impose sanctions on two Indian companies for assisting in Iran's missile program.
Markey , a Malden Democrat, said the administration is withholding the announcement for fear that it would jeopardize chances of getting congressional approval for a controversial proposal to sell nuclear technology to India.
The measure, which would make India the only country in the world to receive sensitive nuclear technology from the United States without signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, was overwhelmingly approved by the House of Representatives late Wednesday. It now goes to the Senate.
The State Department is not expected to release the report on which Indian firms have been sanctioned until next week. But Reuters quoted two US officials yesterday saying that two Indian firms were being sanctioned for selling missiles-related technology to Iran.
``The Bush administration has once again delayed, obfuscated, and misled this Congress by withholding information about these violations by Indian entities before we voted to grant historic nuclear cooperation with the Indian government," Markey, one of the most vocal critics of the measure, said in a statement yesterday.
The Bush administration has touted the nuclear deal with India as a way to cement a historic new US-India alliance and said that helping India build civilian nuclear power plants would also make the rapidly growing South Asian nation less reliant on Iranian oil and gas and more willing to support sanctions on Iran over it's nuclear program.
But opponents of the pact say that it will not push India to give up its friendship with Iran.
Earlier this week, State Department spokesman Tom Casey denied that the semiannual report, known as the Iran Nonproliferation Act Compliance Report, was delayed for political reasons.
``We're working on it as expeditiously as possible," Casey said.
US and Indian officials say that the Indian government has kept its nuclear technology from leaking to other countries, and that there is no risk that India will pass on US nuclear know-how to Iran. But in 2004, the State Department sanctioned two Indian nuclear scientists, Y. S. R. Prasad and C. Surendar, for working with Iran's nuclear program. Few details were available about the cases.
In 2005, two Indian companies were sanctioned by the United States for selling chemicals to Iran. The Indian government protested the sanctions as unfair. Sanctions against Surendar have since been rescinded.
The bill approved by the House 359-to-68 cited the need to secure ``India's full and active participation in United States efforts to dissuade, isolate, and, if necessary, sanction and contain Iran for its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear weapons capability."
But Indian officials said this week that the US agreement does not obligate them to turn their back on Iran.
``Our strategic program is free from any interference," Anand Sharma, India's Minister of State for External Affairs, told India's Parliament on Wednesday.
The Iran reference in the House bill sparked anger in India, which prides itself on its ``nonaligned" foreign policy. Parliamentarians questioned Sharma about whether the US pact would require India to turn its back on Iran. At a recent G8 summit in Russia, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh questioned President Bush about it, according to Indian press accounts.
Analysts said the statements from Indian offiicals prove that the nuclear deal is not likely to curb India's deepening ties to Iran.
In recent years, India has become one of Iran's most reliable investors, even as other countries have balked at doing business with the volatile fundamentalist regime. This spring, an arm of India's Oil and Natural Gas Company began drilling in Yadavaran, one of Iran's biggest onshore oilfields, despite a US law that threatens sanctions against foreign companies that invest in Iran's energy sector.
India's state-owned oil company is still considering a deal that would build a multibillion oil pipeline from Iran through Pakistan, although the project is thought to be decades away. An Indian gas company is still in talks over a similar pipeline to transport natural gas, although that, too, has experienced setbacks and delays.
Even without the pipelines, Iran is a major exporter of tanker-transported crude to India, and India in turn exports refined gasoline back into Iran.
India is also modernizing a key Iranian port and is working with Iran to build a road through Afghanistan that would serve as a main artery to get Indian exports into Central Asia, according to Christine Fair, a senior research associate at the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace.
``Indians and Iranians say that this is a stragetic relationship which is not going to be knocked off course," she said.
Supporters of the nuclear pact say that it is already bearing fruit: India cast a rare vote against Iran's nuclear program at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
But Sharma told India's Parliament this week that Iran has a right to develop peaceful nuclear technology, and that India opposes using ``coercion" against Iran.
Mark Hayes, a research fellow at Stanford University's Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, said that India is likely to turn to Iran in the future for oil and gas.
Even with the US nuclear deal, nuclear power will supply less than 15 percent of India's needs, according to the most optimistic estimates, he said.
``I think the administration put the nuclear pact forward as a way to say, `Don't do a deal with Iran,' " Hayes said. ``But the economic logic behind dealing with Iran is so strong, in the long term, it is hard to see it not happening."
On Wednesday, Markey tried to amend the nuclear deal to require Bush to certify that India has cooperated with efforts to curb Iran's program before going forward with sharing nuclear knowledge. The amendment was defeated, 192-to-235.