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Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale (left) with Iran deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi in New Delhi. Photo: Twitter.
Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale (left) with Iran deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi in New Delhi. Photo: Twitter.

India, US hold talks on proposed American sanctions against Iran

The meeting in New Delhi comes a day after the visit of Iranian minister for discussions on oil import

New Delhi: India and the US on Tuesday agreed to continue consultations on the proposed American sanctions on Iran, a day after Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi visited New Delhi for discussions on pressing ahead with energy and connectivity cooperation.

The day-long discussions were led by Marshall Billingslea, assistant secretary for terrorist financing in the US treasury department on the American side and by officials from the petroleum and foreign ministries on the Indian side, two people familiar with the developments separately confirmed.

Ahead of the talks, one of the people cited above said India could convey to the US that it could look at reducing the import of oil from Tehran in return for an exemption from US sanctions on plans to push ahead with the development of Chabahar Port that New Delhi sees as a gateway to the landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia, given its hostile ties with Pakistan.

But at the end of the discussions, a third person familiar with the exchanges said, “It was an interactive process where both sides shared their concerns."

“We agreed to keep up the consultations," the person said, describing them as good and free of tensions.

Billingslea’s visit follows close on the heels of the visit by Iran’s Araghchi, who had expressed the view that there was a stronger possibility for India to insulate its ties with Iran this time given that European countries were also opposed to the US imposing sanctions on Tehran.

“We know that there are pressures from outside but we count on the Indian government to make proper decisions based on national interest," Araghchi was quoted as saying by news reports. Together with European countries, Araghchi said, India could work to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which had seen the freeing of Iran from the multiple layers of sanctions imposed on it for its suspect nuclear programme.

The second person cited above pointed out that Iranian comments could be Tehran’s way of pressuring India, given that all countries were looking to ensure the best deal for themselves before the first set of US sanctions kicked in on 4 August.

In May, US President Donald Trump had announced that the country would not back the 2015 Iran deal any more and added that the US would reimpose sanctions on Tehran, upending the painstakingly concluded pact.

For India, it meant looking for a new supplier of oil to replace its third-largest source of energy after Iraq and Saudi Arabia, situated close to home. Iran supplied 18.4 million tonnes of crude oil between April 2017 and January 2018.

Analysts in India were of the view that India would not be able to resist the impact of US sanctions but they were divided in their view on whether India would be able to insulate Chabahar Port from the strictures if it cut down on oil imports.

“There are two parties in the equation—the Americans and the Iranians," said former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh. “If the US is determined to impose these sanctions, there is little that the Iranians and the Europeans can do," he said. “I don’t think India has much of a choice" about not adhering to the sanctions given that opposing the sanctions would cost India, he said.

Former Indian ambassador to the US Arun Singh was of the view that the current situation—in a broad manner—was similar to what was prevailing between 2012-15 before the Iran nuclear deal was negotiated. At that time, countries that reduced oil imports from Iran by 20% every six months were given an exemption from US sanctions. This is what India had followed, winning it exemptions, he said. On Chabahar, India had managed to insulate port development from sanctions through a special waiver, he said.

On India joining hands with Europe, while European governments were opposed to sanctions, European companies were unlikely to stand up to US pressure on sanctions given their exposure to American markets, Singh said.

Dilip Sinha, who was in charge of the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan desk in the Indian foreign ministry previously, said India should look at protecting its options on Chabahar given that “oil is not in short supply in the world."

“The main aim of the US is to choke the flow of hard cash to Iran since the US blames Iran for using money it has made through oil sales to prop up the opposition in Yemen and Syria, creating problems for US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia," Sinha said. So, it’s a better deal for India to try to win concessions on Chabahar, given that this is critical for India to access Afghanistan and Central Asia. “The question is, is Afghanistan a priority to the US now" for Washington to understand India’s compulsions, Sinha said, pointing to reports that suggested the US was seeking direct talks with the Taliban to end the Afghan war.

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