Last Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved President Barack Obama’s nominee as U.S. ambassador to India, all but ensuring that Washington will soon have a permanent representative in New Delhi after a lengthy vacancy.
Despite the Obama administration repeatedly emphasizing the importance it places on U.S.-Indian relations, seven months went by between the time former U.S. Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer announced his resignation, and Obama nominating Nancy J. Powell as his successor in December. By way of comparison, Obama named Gary Locke to be ambassador to China only a month after Jon Huntsman announced he was stepping down.
Nonetheless, Powell brings a wealth of experience in South Asian affairs to the position, having served in a number of regional posts over the course of her three decades career as a Foreign Service Officer. This includes a three-year stint in India during the early 1990’s, and serving as the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan (2002-2004) and Nepal (2007-2009). Powell also worked as a National Intelligence Officer for South Asia at the National Intelligence Council in Washington, D.C from 2006 to 2007.
During her Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month, Powell pledged to devote her “energies and experiences to enlarging and expanding” the Indo-U.S. partnership if confirmed. She listed seven areas as her top priorities: bolstering bilateral trade and investment, increasing U.S. exports to India, expanding defense cooperation, enhancing cooperation in international forums, encouraging India to play a leadership role in the Indian Ocean region, cooperating on counterterrorism and advancing shared values like freedom and human rights throughout South Asia.
One topic that was conspicuously absent from Powell’s opening statement was India’s policy towards Iran, which has strained U.S.-Indian relations in recent weeks as India has refused to curb its consumption of Iranian oil in accordance with new U.S. and EU sanctions.
The topic came up repeatedly during the Q&A portion of the hearing as multiple senators probed Powell on how she would handle the issue as ambassador. Surprisingly, Powell largely defended India’s position, explaining to the committee that, “Iran and India have a long tradition of trade across energy and other fields” and New Delhi has supported previous sanctions against Iran. “India shares with us a desire to see a nonnuclear state in Iran,” Powell confidently asserted after Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) doubted India’s commitment to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.
At another other point in the hearing, however, Powell assured the committee of her dedication to the issue. “I understand and appreciate that this is going to be a very important topic…that I will be dealing with very seriously and very early in my tenure,” she said. She also assured the senators that the issue would be one of her “top priorities” as ambassador.
Powell’s answers evidently assuaged the senators’ concerns as the Committee unanimously approved her nomination. Powell is expected to easily win confirmation from the full Senate, who will likely vote on her nomination in the coming weeks.
Zachary Keck is an editorial assistant with the Diplomat.