By Syed Zafar Mehdi

'India may be willing to decide in a more strategic manner on oil purchases from Iran'

October 17, 2018

TEHRAN - Iran and India have shared age-old historical, commercial and cultural ties. The two countries have inked many bilateral agreements in recent years. Iran has been the main supplier of crude oil to India even at the peak of Western sanctions between 2012 and 2016. Now, with sanctions imposed against Iran by the Trump administration, it remains to be seen which course of action New Delhi takes.

Rezaul Hasan Laskar is a New Delhi-based journalist and foreign editor at Hindustan Times. In an interview to Tehran Times, he talks about India-Iran ties in the light of recent developments, and says it is unlikely that energy hungry countries such as China and India will totally cut off oil purchases from Iran.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q. India and Iran share deep historical, cultural and economic ties. What makes their relationship so enduring and why is Iran important for India?
 
A. The deep historic ties in terms of culture, language, food, trade and people-to-people exchanges is something that has underpinned the relationship between the two sides. In more modern times, Iran has been an important source of energy – it has been among the top three suppliers of crude to India in recent years – and cooperation on Chabahar port with an eye on markets in Afghanistan and Central Asia has given impetus to the bilateral relationship.
 
Q. India has been one of the biggest importers of Iranian crude oil. But, lately New Delhi has been under pressure to cut Iranian oil imports. Do you think it is because of the fear of U.S. sanctions?

A. If the Indian government’s decision to buy the S-400 air defense system from Russia despite threats of U.S. sanctions is any indication, India may be willing to decide in a more strategic manner on oil purchases from Iran.

As things stand, it is hard to replace a key supplier which provides millions of barrels of crude within a space of weeks and months. It is true that the total number of barrels that India buys from Iran has fallen in recent months but New Delhi could use this to argue with Washington that it has reduced its dependence on Tehran for energy. However, it seems unlikely to me that energy hungry countries such as China and India will totally cut off oil purchases from Iran.
 
 Q. In a veiled warning to India, U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday said U.S. will "take care" of countries which defy its directives to bring their oil imports from Iran to zero by November 4. Does that put India in a difficult situation, since India and U.S. recently signed a major defense deal?

A. India finds itself in the delicate position of having to balance its relatively new strategic relationship with the U.S., a supplier of hi-tech weapons systems and dual use technology and a key partner of issues such as terrorism, with its old and time-tested ties with countries such as Russia and Iran.

Indian leaders, while referring to energy purchases from Iran and defense deals with Russia, have indicated that they will go by UN sanctions and not unilateral actions. My personal opinion is that if India is in a difficult situation, it is largely due to the uncertainty created by the current U.S. leadership.
 
Q. What is the general opinion in India as far as the relations between India and Iran are concerned?

A. Unfortunately, my personal feeling is that a lot of young Indians are not really aware of the ties between India and Iran. It is quite possible that many young Indians aren’t even aware that Iran is among the top three suppliers of energy. There is a need for more people-to-people exchanges.
 
Q. India's former vice president Hamid Ansari recently said government of India should take into consideration 'totality' of India's ties with Iran while responding to U.S. sanctions against Iran, because Iran provides alternate route to Afghanistan for India. What's your take on it.

A. Again, the uncertainty created by the U.S. leadership comes into play here. The Americans say they are willing to allow India’s work at Chabahar to go on, with an eye on Afghanistan, even as they threaten sanctions on Indian oil purchases from Iran. Mr Ansari’s remarks make a lot of sense in such circumstances.

Of course, to continue oil purchases from Iran, both countries will have to work out some form of payments, including payments in rupees, though this will be a fairly complicated matter.
 
Q. During President Rouhani's visit to India earlier this year, the two countries reaffirmed commitment to jointly develop Chabahar Port in Iran's Sistan Baluchistan province. How important is the project from India's perspective?

A. It is a very important and strategic project that has ramifications for India’s long-term plans to help stabilize and secure Afghanistan.

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