Nikki Haley, the firebrand US ambassador to the UN, now on a visit to India, has delivered a tough message with a soft hand.
Haley, born Namrata Randhwa, the daughter of Sikh immigrants from Punjab, is on the extreme right of the Republican party, and one of President Donald Trump’s most trusted officials. Her task during the three-day visit was to hard sell the India-US partnership and get India to move decisively to the US camp. India already has one foot there but has major differences with the Trump administration on certain key foreign policy issues.
The Iran nuclear deal is one area of divergence.
During her meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Haley asked India to stop importing Iranian crude. She made it clear that Iran is America’s enemy, and its friends and allies needs to take note of it.
Speaking at a meeting on “Advancing India-US relations” organised by the Delhi-based think tank, the Observer Research Foundation and the US Embassy on Thursday, Haley lashed out at Iran. She dubbed Iran as the “next North Korea”. And, went on to say: “Iran is a theocratic dictatorship that abuses its people, funds terrorism, and spreads conflict throughout the Middle East. Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon threatens all of us”.
Trump had walked out of the Iran nuclear agreement, a landmark agreement of the Obama presidency, where Tehran promised to roll back its nuclear program. Intrusive inspection by UN inspectors had given Iran a clean chit, saying it was sticking to its part of the bargain.
The US president, however, with Saudi Arabia and Israel’s backing, was determined to pull out and impose more stringent sanctions on Iran. Believing that US sanctions had forced North Korea to come to the table for talks, US is now going all out to do the same in Iran.
Washington is hoping that economic hardships would force the population to overthrow the current regime. So, all countries doing business with Iran or buying Iranian oil have been warned that they would also have to bear the consequences of defying the US ban.
A November 4 deadline has been issued by the US for all nations to gradually stop lifting Iranian crude so that in five months’ time, there should be no purchase of oil from Iran.
Swaraj had earlier made it clear that India would not abide by unilateral sanctions announced by any country and take note of sanctions that had the UN backing. That had been the policy of successive Indian governments. But now it seems a compromise may have been worked out with the US. India will gradually reduce its dependence on Iranian oil.
When asked about the ultimatum of November 4 cut off by the US Government, the MEA spokesman response at the weekly news conference gave the hint of compliance. He first pointed out that the statement was not India specific, which is a fact, it was directed at all countries.
“India will take all necessary steps, including engagement with relevant stakeholders to ensure our energy security,” he said.
Simply put, it means that Indian consumers will not suffer and Delhi will lift oil from other oil producers. Saudi Arabia, which hates Iran will comply.
Haley also said “There is great opportunity for the US to help meet India’s energy needs. Recent purchases of US crude and liquefied natural gas are just a couple of examples of this potential”. It may be mentioned that India has been buying shale oil from the US.
The Trump administration is holding out several carrots to woo India.
Like George W Bush before him, Trump wants to help India grow both economically and militarily, with an eye to checkmate China’s rising power. But in recent months there have been several blips in ties.
The sudden cancellation of the 2 +2 talks, where Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman were to meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis were due to hold joint talks with their Indian counterparts in Washington on July 6, led to much talk of a snub to India. But Washington moved fast to clarify that the talks would be held and if required, Pompeo and Mattis would travel to India. Dates have not yet been worked out.
The US Embassy said in a statement that Washington remained committed to a strong relationship with India: “The US-India partnership is a major strategic priority for the Trump administration.” Yet, tariff wars and visa issues remain to be sorted out.
What is not known is the fate of the Chabahar project in Iran.
Delhi had hoped that concerns about stabilising Afghanistan would persuade Washington to work around the Iran sanctions for the sake of better trade between the war-torn country and India. Chabahar is a project envisaged in 2003 by the Atal Behari Vajpayee government as a way around Pakistan’s refusal to allow India transit to land-locked Afghanistan.
Encouraging trade relations and economic activity in Afghanistan has always been seen as a way to wean people from the Taliban and the ISIS.
Will Washington allow India to go ahead with Chabahar while insisting on Delhi to buying oil from Iran, remains to be seen.