Tightrope walk for India, schedules talks with Iran, U.S.

Tightrope walk for India, schedules talks with Iran, U.S.

Washington to reimpose curbs on Tehran from August 6, wants all countries to stop their oil imports; Iran clarifies that it understands India’s difficulties.

Ahead of the first set of U.S. sanctions on Iran kicking in on August 6, the Union government is planning to hold talks with senior Iranian and American officials back-to-back next week. On Monday, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi will meet External Affairs Ministry officials. On Tuesday, a U.S. team headed by a senior Treasury Department official will hold meetings with Indian officials to discuss India’s options and concerns, government sources have confirmed.

The U.S. team, led by Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Marshall Billingslea, has senior diplomats, including State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Andrew Peek, energy officials as well as counter-terrorism officials, and will be in Delhi as part of a U.S. outreach to several countries to convince them to cut down oil imports from Iran to “zero” as well as cut off trade ties.

This would be the “first face-to-face meeting with the U.S. since sanctions were reimposed”, a government official told The Hindu, adding that the two sides would exchange “perspectives as friends” on the issue. However, both Mr. Billingslea and Mr. Peek, a former U.S. military intelligence officer, are presidential appointees, served on U.S. President Donald Trump’s transition team, and are known for their hardline views on Iran.

Mr. Araghchi was part of the team of negotiators of the multilateral nuclear deal JCPOA, which the U.S. withdrew from in May. Last month he had warned that Iran could also exit the JCPOA, without sufficient guarantees from the European Union, adding that the deal was now in the “Intensive Care Unit” (ICU), and is likely to ask India for assurances that it will not accede to U.S. pressure.

This week Iran’s deputy envoy had warned that India would face a “deprivation of all other privileges Iran has offered to India” if it chose to replace Iranian oil from other sources, although he clarified later that Iran understands India’s “difficulties” with its energy choices and respected its sovereign right to choose partners.

Terror on agenda

According to officials privy to the U.S. team’s agenda, Iran’s role in supporting terror groups in West Asia would be brought up strongly, and they will highlight the U.S.’s support to India on fighting terror.

Earlier this month Mr. Billingslea took over as the President of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), where the U.S. was responsible for a decision to “greylist” Pakistan for supporting the LeT and JeM among other terror groups.

“India tells us fighting cross-border terror is a priority. Then it must also take U.S. concerns about Iran as a state-sponsor of terror and major cause of middle east instability into account,” a diplomat said.

The visit comes close on the heels of U.S. envoy Nikki Haley’s trip to Delhi where she met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, calling for India to “revise” its relationship with Iran, while a State department said the U.S. would make no exceptions to countries continuing to deal with Iran. Earlier this week, at a briefing for airline manufacturers on Iran sanctions, Mr. Billingslea had a similar message: “We are not in a position to show flexibility on transactions with Iran at this time,” he said, when asked about licenses or waivers for companies trading with Tehran.

The message appears to have been heard in Delhi. News agency Reuters reported that imports from Iran declined 16% in June despite India’s commitment during President Hassan Rouhani’s visit in February that it would increase its off take of Iranian oil this year. At the same time, India’s oil imports from the U.S. in June have doubled since last year.

A senior official, briefing on the upcoming visit by the U.S. team said that India will seek a “carve-out” or waiver from sanctions for its investment in the Shahid Beheshti port at Chabahar, as it had received from the Obama administration the last time the US had imposed sanctions, in order to allow trade with Afghanistan. The team would also seek to clarify the U.S. position on the Rupee-Rial mechanism it put into place in 2012, which allowed it to import oil from Iran and supply essential foods and necessities to Iran from a UCO bank-operated fund created with up to half of the import figure in rupees.

“The question is how do we engage with the US, and we are waiting for them to engage with us. Iran is an important near neighbour and we are an oil dependent economy. We have to see whether they can continue to supply us and if we have options,” the official said.

The first set of U.S. sanctions will target Iran’s automotive sector, trade in gold, and other key metals.The remaining sanctions will come into place on November 4, and will include targeting Iran’s energy sector and petroleum-related transactions, as well as transactions with the Central Bank of Iran.

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