India and the U.S. appeared to have agreed to disagree and parted with friendship despite their huge differences on Iran and New Delhi’s purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia. This perhaps sums up the talks between India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and his U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo.
Neither side papered over their differences but both indicated a willingness to look beyond, at the broader picture, and work towards convergences. However, it was clear that both Iran and India’s purchase of the S-400 missile systems from Russia, despite the possibility of inviting U.S. sanctions, will continue to be irritants in bilateral ties.
Iran underscored the wide divergence of views between New Delhi and Washington. The differences spilled into the open during the limited press interaction Jaishankar and Pompeo had after they had read out their respective statements.
Sitting next to Jaishankar, Pompeo launched an anti-Iran tirade. He said: “We all know that we need to keep that waterway open for reasons just described. And we also know that Iran is the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, and we know the Indian people, how they have suffered from terror around the world. So I think there is a shared understanding of threat and a common purpose to ensure that we can keep energy at the right prices and deter this threat. Not only the threat in the narrow confines of the Middle East but the threat that this terror regime poses to the entire world.”
Minutes earlier, in what was clear messaging to the U.S., Jaishankar said he “underlined the importance of stability, predictability and affordability in terms of India’s energy imports.”
The supplies are already hit with the U.S. having imposed sanctions on Iran’s crude exports. India has been forced to bring down its oil imports from Iran to zero with no oil imported post May 1 this year.
Indicative of New Delhi’s concerns about both the U.S. sanctions on Iran oil plus heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran spilling into the Persian Gulf, highly placed sources told SNI that Iran and the current situation in the Persian Gulf region were discussed threadbare when the two leaders met.
New Delhi is learnt to have told Pompeo that “developments in this region will affect the fragile world economy and the U.S. must not do anything to exacerbate the tensions.”
Also, amid fears of a looming war between the U.S. and Iran, Pompeo maintained that the U.S. doesn’t want war but someone (a nation) should persuade Tehran not to be reckless. Was this an oblique hint from Pompeo for India to use its traction in Tehran to get some engagement going with Washington? SNI had earlier reported that there were indications that Washington may seek New Delhi’s assistance to de-escalate tensions with Tehran.
Sources have also told SNI that on the contentious issue of the S-400 missile systems which India is contracted to buy from Russia for about $5 billion and for which it faces possible U.S. sanctions under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), Pompeo wanted India to look for alternatives.
Jaishankar, however, told his counterpart that it was not possible. As he put it: “I have explained to Secretary Pompeo that we have many relationships with many countries, many of them of long-standing. They have a history. So I think we will do what is in our national interest. And part of that strategic partnership is the ability of each country to comprehend and appreciate the national interest of the other.”
India believes the wording of CAATSA against arms trade with Russia is flexible enough for President Trump to grant a waiver from sanctions. Whether the mercurial Trump will do so is uncertain.
On the touchy issue of trade and recent U.S. threats against India including the withdrawal of GSP benefits, Jaishankar said when there is trade with somebody there will be issues. “We need to take a constructive and pragmatic view of issues relating to trade,” Jaishankar tweeted after the meeting. Regarding the Indo-Pacific, the minister tweeted that it is “for Something, not Against Somebody, and that Something is Peace, Security, Stability, Prosperity and Rules.”
He pointed out that “we have started sourcing some of our energy from the U.S. in recent years. (Pompeo) said we are both very optimistic on where our economic relationship is going and can go. On some outstanding issues of trade my urging was that we take a constructive and pragmatic view.”
Pompeo echoed those sentiments saying “we will keep working to resolve any economic disputes we have at this moment. We have to get this economic piece right because there are so many opportunities before us,” adding: “Great friends are bound to have differences.”
Jaishankar said India was committed to making it easier to do business, providing a level playing field and growing with the world economy. Summing up he said: “We agreed to filter out the noise and work on our solid relationship.”