The Obama administration is threatening to impose sanctions on India over its continued economic ties with Iran amid disagreements between Washington and New Delhi over how much and how soon the latter is reducing oil imports from the (in US eyes) pariah nation.
India has "failed" to reduce its purchase of Iranian oil and if it doesn't do so, President Barack Obama may be "forced" to impose sanction, unnamed administration officials were cited as telling Bloomberg wire service. A decision in this regard could come as early as June 28, they added, implicitly offering New Delhi a ten- week window to show a decline in Iranian oil imports.
Indian officials have contested the US assessment by insisting New Delhi is scaling down Iranian oil imports with more reduction in the pipeline, but that concession has been offset by India's commerce ministry's well-publicized efforts to ramp up trade with Iran in other areas, a move that has not gone unnoticed by the powerful pro-Israeli lobby in US.
The potent American Jewish Committee (AJC), which holds Israeli interests dear to its heart, raged against an Indian business delegation being shepherded to Iran by the Indian commerce ministry, pointing to it as an example of New Delhi's perfidy at a time Israel is India's close military and counter-terrorism partner.
That prompted a strong rebuttal from the Indian embassy in Washington, accusing certain lobbies of presenting a "distorted picture of New Delhi's foreign policy objectives and energy security needs" by selective use of data about its imports from Iran.
But the anti-Iran lobby in US has been galvanized by a report on Wednesday from the International Energy Agency (IEA), showing that India and South Korea "sharply" increased their oil imports from Iran in January.
However, India has informally conveyed to Washington that it has advised its refineries, many of which are geared towards processing Iranian crude, to seek alternate supplies and gradually reduce their dependence on Iran. That process may take some time to kick in since annual crude contracts with Iran are April to March, so the reduction will start to show from next month.
India has enough time to show compliance since the US law relating to sanctions vis-a-vis Iran kicks in only if countries don't make a "significant" cuts in their Iranian crude oil purchases during the first half of this year. The law does not specify by what percentage a nation must reduce its imports to qualify for an exemption from sanctions, so countries like South Korea and Japan have been negotiating with Washington the quantum of cuts they can live with. India is also believed to be in discussion with U.S in this matter.
While the impending Indian compliance has been quietly acknowledged by some Obama administration officials, the hardline pro-Israeli lobby in US is champing at the bit. At a Congressional hearing earlier this month Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told lawmakers that while the US remains concerned about India's links with Iran, she acknowledged that New Delhi is ''heading in the right direction''.
"In fact, I think in a number of instances, the actions of countries and their banks are better than the public statements that we sometimes hear them making," Clinton said in an indication of the Indian assurances.
The Obama administration itself is in a bind over squeezing too hard and tightening oil supplies across the world. While Washington has offered to wean India and other countries from Iranian oil by arranging supplies from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, that could come at its own expense and rising oil prices. Already, gas prices are close to $ 4 a gallon at US pumps, and it is a well-acknowledged fact that the fortunes of US politicians running for high office is linked to pain (or otherwise) at the pump.