Iran red-flagged at India-US 2+2 talks

C. Uday Bhaskar

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The twice delayed 2 plus 2 talks between India and the US concluded on a rather satisfactory note in New Delhi on Thursday (Sep 6) despite the initial apprehension that discordant issues, such as Russia and Iran, would muddy the final outcome.

The 2 plus 2 is a distinctive ministerial level framework that brings together the foreign and defense minister equivalents on both sides for an annual consultative meeting and this first meeting appeared to be jinxed – for it was postponed on two earlier occasions.

It was an unusual photo-op on Thursday when the Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and her cabinet colleague Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman – the two women members in the Cabinet Committee on Political /Security Affairs received their US counterparts Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary General Jim Mattis.

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In the run up to this inaugural meet, there was speculation that the recently introduced Trump led punitive US legislation in relation to nations engaging with Russia and Iran would be brought under the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) provisions and that India would become an affected party.

This stemmed from the fact that Moscow is a major supplier of military inventory to India and the possibility of Delhi acquiring a Russian anti-missile system is being negotiated.

Specific to the Trump triggered turbulence in many of the other bi-laterals that the US has with its allies and partners, the one with India has been relatively more stable

C. Uday Bhaskar

Pressure on Iran

In relation to Iran, ever since the Trump administration has walked out of the Obama led nuclear deal, the US has been mounting pressure on its allies and partners to reduce oil imports from Tehran and isolate that country. This has significant implications for Delhi, since Iran is a major hydrocarbon supplier for oil deficient India.

Thus there was anxiety that the already jinxed 2 plus 2 would get off to an awkward and stalled launch – but the final outcome was more than satisfactory. There was no reference to any of the contentious issues in the final statements – neither Russia nor Iran found any mention – and the more significant outcome was in the defense and security basket.

After years of deliberation, India finally inked the COMCASA (Communication Compatibility and Security Arrangement) protocol with the US. This communication agreement with its embedded security template will enable greater inter-operability between US supplied military platforms such as maritime reconnaissance aircraft, drones and such like that have been (or will be) acquired by India.

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This is a significant development in the India-US bi-lateral, where Delhi’s natural aversion to any kind of formal military engagement with a major power has been a noticeable feature. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shed this reticence and enabled visible traction in a defense cooperation framework that was first mooted as far back as June 2005 as part of Rumsfeld-Mukherjee agreement.

In the Thursday deliberations, India and the US also agreed to hold their first ever inter-service military exercise off the east coast of India in 2019. This would be a strong signal to the ASEAN nations and east Asia including China about the degree of bi-lateral inter-operability that is being envisioned.

Iran has been an issue where India and the US have tacitly agreed to follow their own paths. The Trump administration has introduced certain punitive domestic legislation and related strictures against Teheran for what it perceives as nuclear and terrorism related transgressions.

However, New Delhi has indicated that it will only adhere to UN mandated sanctions in relation to Iran and has conveyed its inability to accept US domestic legislation aimed at isolating Tehran.

Energy relevance

The energy relevance of Iran is reflected in the statistic that after Saudi Arabia and Iraq, currently Iran is the third largest supplier of hydrocarbons for India. This accounts for almost 12 percent of India’s total crude oil import.

However the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted at the press briefing in Delhi (Sep 6) that the US expects all countries including India to cut oil imports from Iran to “zero” by November.

“We have told the Indians consistently, as we have told every nation, that on November 4th the sanctions with respect to Iranian crude oil will be enforced. We will consider waivers where appropriate, but that it is our expectation that the purchases of Iranian crude oil will go to zero from every country, or sanctions will be imposed,” Mattis said.

It merits recall that Iran supplied India more than 20 million tons of crude oil during April 2017 to March 2018 – the Indian fiscal year. Thus while a reduction in the actual quantum imported from Iran may be a possibility – coming down to “zero” is unlikely without causing serious damage to the Indian economy and causing hardship to the average citizen.

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The US diktat over Iran is not India-specific as Pompeo pointed out and within Asia, the Iranian export of crude (2016) is China 33 percent; India 23 percent; South Korea 16 percent and Japan 11 percent. More than 80 percent of total Iranian crude oil production goes to Asia and a little over 11 percent is exported to EU nations.

It is understood that the Trump administration is in talks with the other major Middle East oil producers to see what kind of a viable option could be considered for those nations dependent on Iranian crude but it is unlikely that any major economy can come down to the “zero” level within the next two months.

Specific to the Trump triggered turbulence in many of the other bi-laterals that the US has with its allies and partners, the one with India has been relatively more stable. The outcome of the inaugural 2 plus 2 talks in Delhi is a case in point but the dissonance over Iran and Russia could still muddy the script.

Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore who served in the Indian Navy, is one of India's leading experts and outspoken critics on security and strategic affairs. Commodore Bhaskar is currently the Director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, India. He has the rare distinction of being the head of three think tanks during his career - the earlier two being the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF). He is a columnist, editor, and contributor of numerous research-articles on nuclear and international security issues to reputed journals in India and abroad. Bhaskar has an abiding interest in the visual arts, film and theater. He tweets. @theUdayB.

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