India’s missile deal with Russia, trade with Iran despite US sanctions may create unease in New Delhi-Washington ties
India-US ties, that have received a fillip in recent months, appear to have hit a rough patch as New Delhi looks to procure S-400 air defence system from Moscow. The proposed deal with Russia has struck the wrong chord with the US, that has expressed concerns saying it would complicate interoperability between Indian and American forces.
While New Delhi-Washington ties have strengthened in recent times with the US calling on India to play a more weighty role in the Indo-Pacific and also Afghanistan, the deal with Russia and US imposing sanctions on Iran after withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord seems to have created chinks in the relationship.
Deal with Russia
India is planning to procure S-400 Triumf air defence missile systems for the Indian Air Force from Russia. A senior US Congressman has said that the proposed deal would “complicate” building interoperability between the United States and Indian militaries.
“There is a lot of concern in the US in both the administration and the Congress regarding the S-400 (missile) system. And, there is concern that any country, and it is not just India that is looking at clearing it, but any country that acquires that system will complicate our ability to work out interoperability,” Republican Mac Thornberry, the chairman of the House Armed Services, told a group of journalists in Delhi.
According to an NDTV report, India’s decision to go ahead with the deal with Russia could come in the way of India acquiring US-built Predator drones which could have been used in operations against terrorist launch-pads along the Line of Control with Pakistan.
India has recently concluded price negotiations with Russia and the two countries are now trying to find a way to evade US sanctions. Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was signed into law in August 2017 and went into effect in January this year, mandates the Trump administration to punish entities engaging in a significant transaction with the defence or intelligence sectors of Russia.
However, American lawmakers and experts have warned that that imposition of sanctions on India under the newly-enacted law, if it buys the S-400 air defence missile system from Russia, could be disastrous for the India-US ties.
Thornberry has clarified that sanctions against New Delhi are unlikely at the present stage. He, however, said a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which is awaiting a Senate nod and was passed by the House on 24 May, would allow the Trump administration to suspend the sanctions under CAATSA.
But the president, in order to seek the waiver, has to make a certification to Congress that the country subject to sanctions and seeking relaxation is altering its relationship with Russia.
“The current sanctions bill that was just signed in the law last fall doesn’t really have much flexibility. But the bill that passed by the House on Thursday adds more flexibility for nations like India who have a legacy of Russian military equipment and of course need to purchase spare parts in order to maintain the readiness of that equipment,” he added.
The way US handles the issue is extremely crucial for India because it has deep military and strategic ties with Russia. India still buys over 60 percent of its defence equipment from Russia. At present, the Indian armed forces are 70 percent equipped with Soviet or Russian weapons.
Nonetheless, the deal is expected to sour the ties between the two countries. Cara Abercrombie, a visiting scholar with Carnegie Endowment’s South Asia programme, told The Wire that if India triggers CAATSA sanctions, there will be repercussions for US-India ties, particularly in the area of defence trade, which to date has been a bright spot in the relationship.
The US sanctions on Iran might prove to be another thorn in the New Delhi-Washington relationship.
Sanctions on Iran
Union Minister Sushma Swaraj said India will continue trading with Iran and Venezuela despite US sanctions against the two countries, asserting that it only recognises UN restrictions.
“We only recognise UN sanctions. We do not recognise any country-specific sanctions,” Swaraj said. She made the remarks while responding to a question on whether US sanctions against Iran and Venezuela will hit India’s oil imports from the two countries. Iran is India’s third-largest oil supplier. Venezuela is also one of the major suppliers of oil to India.
“We don’t make our foreign policy under pressure from other countries,” she said.
Earlier in May, the US had pulled out from the landmark Iran nuclear deal of 2015 under which Tehran had agreed to stop its sensitive nuclear activities in return for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions. Announcing the decision, Trump had reimposed sanctions against Iran which were suspended after the nuclear deal was finalised three years ago.
Swaraj on Monday met Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, in New Delhi to build support against the US rejection of the nuclear accord.
“Zarif briefed about the discussions that Iran has undertaken with parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action following the US decision to withdraw from the agreement,” said an Indian government statement, without elaborating.
The two leaders also discussed bilateral cooperation in the areas of connectivity, energy, trade and promotion of people to people contacts.
India and Iran have friendly relations and significant trade ties in many areas, particularly in crude oil imports into India and diesel exports to Iran.
Iran is the second largest supplier of crude oil to India, supplying more than 4,25,000 barrels of oil per day, and India is one of the biggest foreign investors in Iran’s oil and gas industry.
India, along with Iran and Afghanistan, are jointly developing the strategic Chabahar port in the southeastern coast of Iran that will give access to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan.