US Postpones ‘2+2’ Meeting With India, Again

Indian officials were told that Secretary Pompeo's presence was needed for a top foreign policy priority of the US administration. On Thursday, media reports stated that Pompeo would be in North Korea on July 6.

New Delhi: The US has again postponed the first meeting of the high-level ‘2+2’ dialogue with India for “unavoidable reasons”, even as Washington pushes New Delhi to cut oil imports from Iran.

US secretary of state Michael R. Pompeo telephoned Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to express “regret and deep disappointment” that the first meeting under the format – which will bring together the defence and external affairs ministers of India with the defence secretary and secretary of state from the US – will have to be postponed due to “unavoidable reason”, MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar tweeted on Wednesday night.

This is the third time that the meeting has been postponed this year. The last postponement took place due to leadership transition in the State Department following Rex Tillerson’s resignation and replacement with Pompeo.

The latest postponement, Indian officials feel, is because of Secretary Pompeo’s visit to another country. While it was earlier speculated that this was related to US President Donald Trump’s ‘summit’ with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Financial Times reported on Thursday that Pompeo would be travelling to North Korea on July 6.

The new 2+2 dialogue format had been one of the outcomes of the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to United States in June 2017.

Swaraj and defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman were scheduled to visit Washington to hold joint talks with Pompeo and secretary of defence James Mattis on July 6.

According to Kumar, both sides agreed to hold the next meeting in either India or the US, rather than sticking to Washington as the venue.

On Thursday, the US embassy issued a statement that “this scheduling change was prompted by reasons entirely unrelated to the bilateral relationship”. In an interview to NDTV, Nikki Haley said there was “very good reason” to postpone the talks and “PM Modi knows exactly what”. She also reiterated in her public remarks that delay in the 2+2 meeting was “completely unrelated” to India.

The decision to postpone the talks comes just as top envoys from the Trump administration have been traipsing across the globe to garner support for Washington’s effort to isolate Iran economically. At a State Department background briefing, a senior diplomat told reporters that India and China will be asked to “go to zero” in Iranian oil imports by November 4 and that no waivers will be granted.

The 2+2 meeting’s postponement comes on the heels of the meeting between Pompeo’s cabinet colleague, Nikki Haley, the US permanent representative to the United Nations, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Swaraj in New Delhi.

Haley told Modi that New Delhi had to work with the US to cut oil imports from Iran. “Sanctions are coming (on Iran) and we’re going forward on that, and with India and the US building strong relationships we hoped that they would lessen their dependence on Iran,” Haley told reporters after the meeting with Modi, according to Reuters.

She stated that there was “political will” in both capitals to work out a solution. “Prime Minister Modi very much understands where we are with Iran, he didn’t question it, he didn’t criticise it, he understood it and he also understands that (India’s) relationship with the US is strong and important and needs to stay that way.”

Haley conceded that the development of Iran’s strategic Chabahar port cannot be impeded. “We know the port has to happen and the US is going to work with India to do that…We know that they’re being a great partner with us in Afghanistan and really trying to assist the US and trying to do more. The port’s vital in trying to do that.”

She described the balancing act of ensuring India complied with oil import cuts, even as Chabahar port development went ahead, as “threading a needle”.

The senior US official also ruled out a “trade war” between the US and India, even as both countries have imposed tit-for-tat duties after President Trump increased tariff hikes on steel and aluminium imports.

This report was updated on June 28 with the US embassy statement and media report of US secretary of state’s possible visit to North Korea on July 6.