Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis pose for a group photo before India-US 2 + 2 Dialogue, in New Delhi. (PTI)

U.S., India Pledge Deeper Defense Ties Despite Iran Disagreement

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. and India pledged to deepen strategic ties on Thursday despite the Trump administration’s threats of sanctions over purchases of Iranian oil and Russian weapons.

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Pentagon chief Jim Mattis were in New Delhi on Thursday for high-level talks with their Indian counterparts. They signed an agreement on military communications, agreed to host tri-services war games in 2019 and expressed hope that Indian firms could get more involved in the U.S. defense sector supply chain.

But there was no breakthrough on issues concerning Iran or Russia, which threatened to hinder the administration’s broader Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China’s influence in Asia. The U.S. has said it would impose economic sanctions on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government unless it significantly reduced purchases of oil from Iran and canceled a planned $6 billion purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia.

On Thursday, Pompeo struck a conciliatory tone, saying the U.S. would work with India on the two issues.

"Our effort here is not to penalize a great strategic partner like India," Pompeo told traveling reporters at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, when asked about the possibility of sanctions if India goes ahead with its decision to purchase the Russian missile system.

Detailed Talks

The U.S. and India were unlikely to reach a deal on Iranian oil imports during the U.S. visit to New Delhi despite “very detailed” talks taking place on Thursday, a senior State Department official said earlier in the day.

The official, who asked not to be identified and spoke before Pompeo’s talks with senior Indian officials, said the conversations will continue ahead of the Trump administration’s Nov. 4 deadline for countries to halt Iranian oil imports or face sanctions. The official declined to give further details about where the talks stand.

“We fully support India’s rise as a leading global power,” Pompeo said as the talks began. He called for cooperation on counter-terrorism, North Korea and to “explore ways to partner on holding this outlaw regime in Iran responsible for all of its malign activity.”

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj made no reference to Iran in her public remarks. "India attaches the highest priority to its strategic partnership with the United States," she said.

Russia, Iran

India, which has long-standing defense ties with Russia, has previously said it would go ahead with the Russian arms deal. In reference to Iranian oil, Swaraj said in May that India only recognizes United Nations sanctions, and not country-specific ones.

The U.S. deadline is part of President Donald Trump’s decision to back out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May. Indian officials have previously told Bloomberg that they were willing to cut oil Iranian oil imports up to 50 percent in order to secure a waiver to continue shipments.

The senior State Department official described the conversations with India as technical in nature, and said those talks will continue.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.