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United States plays down Iran ship visits to India

Written by: Staff

Washington, Apr 4: The United States confirmed that two Iranian navy ships had visited Indian ports last month, but played down the contact as the Bush administration struggles to win congressional approval for a landmark US-India civilian nuclear energy deal.

President George W Bush is pushing for changes in US law and international regulations to allow nuclear technology sales for civilian energy purposes banned for 30 years because India developed and tested nuclear weapons and refuses to sign the nuclear Non-proliferaiton Treaty.

But ties between India -- which Bush envisions as a key US strategic ally in the 21st century -- and Iran -- which the United States accuses of pursuing nuclear weapons and sponsoring ''terrorism'' -- are complicating that goal.

State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli yesterday said the ships visits were a ''limited type of event, and doesn't suggest Indian training or Indian contribution to an Iranian military capabilities.'' Defense News reported last week that while Bush was in New Delhi last month to sign the nuclear energy deal, two Iranian warships were in Kochi, headquarters of the Indian Navy's Southern Command.

Quoting an Indian navy spokesman, it said Indian naval instructors briefed nearly 220 Iranian sailors on the Indian Navy's training approach and course details.

Ereli said such reports were ''overwritten.'' ''Our understanding is that ... there were ship visits by two ships with naval cadets from Iran into Indian ports. They were not training programs. They were ship visits with naval cadets,'' he told a news briefing.

Ereli said Iranian navy ships visit a number of countries with whom the United States has close relations and ''I don't think that one undercuts the other.'' Nor should the visits mar India's ''firm commitment to nonproliferation'' or its ''strong record as a responsible international actor,'' he insisted.

Congress remains divided over the nuclear deal, which nonproliferation experts say will allow India to more rapidly expand its nuclear arsenal and weakens controls on the spread of nuclear arms.

Administration officials reject this and say India, which espouses a policy of minimal deterrence, is unlikely to spark a South Asia arms race.

India, once leader of the non-aligned movement, has insisted on maintaining good ties with Iran, which Bush has called a member of the ''axis of evil'' with prewar Iraq and North Korea.

But it voted with the United States and most other countries to report Iran's noncompliance with nuclear safeguards to the UN Security Council after US members of Congress warned a failure to do so would jeopardize the nuclear deal.


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