Chidanand Rajghatta – India's continued engagement with Iran in the face of American pathology against Tehran and New Delhi's insistence on putting safety before commerce in nuclear energy trade surfaced as wrinkles in an otherwise smooth and upbeat assessment of US-India ties during the confirmation hearing of Nancy Powell, the US ambassador-nominee to India. US Senators gushed about the growing closeness between Washington and New Delhi, a proposition supported by Ms Powell, but on a day India's foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other state department mandarins to present New Delhi's perspective on these and other issues, lawmakers did not hold back from expressing annoyance at the Indian stance on Iran and stalled nuclear trade with US. The sharpest censure came from New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez who virtually accused India, which is one of Iran's largest energy buyers, of ''rebuking (US-led) sanctions'' and ''looking for workarounds, including considering payments in gold and transactions that detour around'' Washington's move forestall Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
''For our sanctions to be effective, it's really crucial that all nations, particularly democratic nations like India, work together to confront Iran,'' Menendez said, urging Powell to convey to New Delhi that this is a ''policy priority'' and the US will not hesitate to take appropriate action under its law to enforce the sanctions, a step that will hurt Indian companies if they continue trading with Iran. Powell was measured in her response, noting that Iran and India have a long tradition of trade across energy and other fields, but also noting twice that foreign secretary Mathai has indicated India's effort to diversify its energy sources and reduce Iranian oil imports to less than 10 per cent. She also pointed out that India had supported the US at the IAEA four times and it shared with Washington a desire to see a nonnuclear state in Iran. ''I think these are positive developments,'' she said, adding that ''our own efforts to support India in looking at other sources of energy will be a contributor to this.'' She however promised to spend time working with New Delhi on this subject. Similarly, Powell also heard senatorial annoyance at India's nuclear liability bill, which veteran senator and disarmament pundit Richard Lugar said could frustrate the US nuclear industry's efforts to play a role in India's expanding nuclear power sector.
Lugar said the bill's terms are ''fundamentally inconsistent'' with the liability regime that the international community is seeking to achieve and wanted the prospective envoy to take this up. Outside these two niggles, there was the usual buoyant assessment of US-India ties, with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry reiterating the broad Washington consensus that ''America is an interested stakeholder in India's increasing ascent to greater economic and greater global power and participation.'' Powell, a veteran foreign service nominee who Kerry described as ''one of our best'' agreed, describing India as ''leading security partner of the US in the 21st century.'' Describing India as a ''net security provider in the Indo-Pacific region,'' Powell, considering a shoo-in for the New Delhi post with confirmation a mere formality, said the ''number and kinds of interactions between our two countries at all levels is staggering in its breadth and depth.''