Delhi should not buckle on Iran

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during their joint press conference following a meeting, in New Delhi on June 26, 2019. PTI

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to India and his interaction with Indian leaders and officials at the highest level was an opportunity for the two sides to probe each other’s views, especially on contentious issues. This is important, especially since the bilateral relationship, which had warmed in the 2000s, has cooled considerably since Donald Trump entered the White House. Indeed, differences have come to dominate the relationship. Although talks between Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar and Pompeo were not structured or restrained by a set agenda, three prickly issues dominated their discussions. Washington’s tariffs on Indian imports and objections to India capping prices of US-made medical devices were among several trade-related issues that were discussed. And while “outstanding issues” remain, the two sides have affirmed commitment to resolving them through discussions. It is heartening that on its plans to purchase the S-400 air defence missile system from Russia, India is standing its ground. The US threat to slap sanctions on India under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act still looms should Delhi go ahead with this purchase. However, as Jaishankar pointed out, on the question of defence purchases, India will be guided by its own national interest. Additionally, he drew attention to India’s decades-old defence ties with Russia, which cannot be “wished away” overnight. It does seem, therefore, that India will go ahead with the purchase of the S-400 missile system.

An important issue that was discussed during the Jaishankar-Pompeo meeting was India’s purchase of Iranian crude. The US is unwilling to budge from its position that doing so will invite sanctions. That India seemed to be buckling to US pressure on this matter is disappointing. If national interest guides India’s purchase of Russian military hardware, surely it must guide our policy on importing Iranian crude, too. Iran has been a long-standing friend of India and to abandon it at a time of crisis shows Delhi up to be a fair-weather friend.

The Trump administration’s policy towards Iran is under fire even from the US’ European allies. Why then is India bending over backwards to please him? Surely, Delhi could have worked with other major importers of Iranian crude, such as China and Japan, to find a way out of the problem. It is still not too late to do so. The US is drifting towards war with Iran, a prospect that will engulf West Asia in flames and could force millions of Indian expatriates to return home. Standing up to the US on Iran is therefore in India’s national interest. Prime Minister Narendra Modi must stress this to President Trump at the G-20 meeting.

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