NEW DELHI -- As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other top leaders in New Delhi on Monday, she was expected to review Afghanistan, China and the state of U.S.-India relations and to pressure India to reduce trade with Iran.
“The visit is about continuity and the new U.S. initiative in Afghanistan,” said Harinder Sekhon, a fellow with the U.S. studies program of New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation, a think tank. “She’s here to assure and reassure that things are moving on their trajectory and that the U.S. remains committed to the region.”
Clinton was expected to push India to reduce its oil purchases from Iran, which account for about 10% of its imports, in her meetings as part of Washington’s campaign to check Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The U.S. needs India "to keep the pressure on Iran," she said in a program broadcast on India's NDTV network, outlining what she said was the Iranian regime's aggressive history, including an Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia's U.S. ambassador. "We need India to be part of the international effort," she added.
India is reluctant to cut off Iranian imports given its strong demand for energy needed to fuel its fast-growing economy. U.S. officials say Saudi Arabia and Iraq have sufficient excess capacity for India to shift its purchases away from Iran.
But analysts in New Delhi said the issue goes beyond oil. India and Iran have to live in the same neighborhood after U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization combat forces leave Afghanistan in 2014, they said. Iraq is India’s best available gateway to Central Asian markets, given India’s difficult relations with Pakistan and China. And, looking out longer-term, Iran is a major regional political and economic power that can’t be ignored, they added, one that is better engaged than not.
“There’s a certain line one has to draw based on a country’s national interests,” said Meena Singh Roy, research fellow with New Delhi’s Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a think tank. “We can’t put all our eggs in one basket.”
Clinton also told the audience during the televised “town hall” on NDTV that she believed the head of Al Qaeda was in Pakistan and said the U.S. would maintain pressure on militant groups in that country. "We want to disable Al Qaeda and we have made a lot of progress in doing that," she said. "There are several significant leaders still on the run. Zawahiri, who inherited the leadership from Bin Laden is somewhere, we believe, in Pakistan."
Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian cleric, was second-in-command under Bin Laden. He's regarded by U.S. intelligence agencies as the militant group’s chief ideologue.
Clinton also said Washington would keep pressing on to arrest the founder of Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, who is wanted in connection with the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people. The United States last month offered a $10-million reward for information leading to Hafiz Muhammad Saeed's conviction. Saeed, considered a top planner of the Mumbai assault, lives openly in Pakistan, which has angered and frustrated New Delhi.
India is keen to hear about Clinton’s China stop last week, analysts said, given concern over the leadership situation in Beijing in the wake of the recent ouster of a top Chinese official Bo Xilai. “There’s a lot of uneasiness both in Delhi and Washington on the state of affairs in China,” Sekhon said.
Following Monday's meeting with Singh and president of the ruling Congress party Sonia Gandhi, Clinton is scheduled to meet Tuesday with S.M. Krishna, India’s foreign minister, before heading back to Washington.
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton disembarks in New Delhi on Monday. Credit: EPA/HARISH