Pompeo meets Indian leaders amid trade tensions, Iran crisis

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar take part in a press conference in New Delhi on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 27 June 2019

Pompeo meets Indian leaders amid trade tensions, Iran crisis

  • US secretary of state describes Tehran as the world’s ‘biggest sponsor of terror’
  • Ties have also been damaged by the US threat of sanctions on India’s purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile

NEW DELHI: In a day-long meeting with the Indian leadership in New Delhi, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday held talks on various issues that had weakened bilateral relations in recent years.

This is Pompeo’s third visit to India, but the first since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landslide victory in this year’s general elections.

The visit comes as the US and India are enduring a difficult period in their relationship, with both nations engaged in a bitter dispute over trade tariffs.

Relations have been damaged further by the US threat of sanctions on India’s purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile. US sanctions on Iran and creeping instability in the Gulf have added to India’s concerns.

“Our discussion covered trade, energy and defense issues alongside investment concerns,” Subrahmanyan Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, said in a joint press conference with Pompeo.

“We’re guided by big pictures, and my urging was that we take pragmatic and constructive views on trade-related issues. The real test would be our intention to address that effectively,” Jaishankar added.

“The Indian government is keen to provide a level playing field to American business, to grow with the world economy and provide the right balance,” he said.

“It’s natural for the two countries to have differences over trade, and we’ll mutually try to address them effectively.”

Pompeo said: “We’re friends. We’ll work together. We can try and find a path together.”

New Delhi imposed retaliatory tariffs on 28 US items earlier this month after the Trump administration ended trade concessions for India on June 1.

On energy issues, Jaishankar said: “We had an open and frank discussion on energy, and we expressed our concerns. I underlined the importance of stability, predictability and affordability in terms of India’s energy imports.”

He told reporters that both countries discussed the situation in the Gulf, and that Pompeo knows India has “big stakes there: Energy, diaspora, business and regional stability.”

On foreign policy issues, Pompeo described Iran as the world’s “biggest sponsor of terror.”

Both leaders refused to answer specific questions on possible exemptions to New Delhi on the purchase of oil from Iran, which is facing US sanctions.

On the question of US opposition to the $5 billion deal for air defense systems between India and Russia, Jaishankar said: “We have relationships with several countries, many of which are significant. They have a history. We’ll do what’s in our national interest.”

He added: “We had a discussion on defense cooperation. It’s important to display trust and confidence in each other if we want this to grow.”

Both countries discussed China’s growing presence in the Indo-Pacific region. “Our partnership in the Indo-Pacific is for a purpose, not against somebody, and that purpose is peace, security, stability, prosperity and rules,” said Jaishankar.

“We’re looking for a landscape where a number of independent players can work together for global good.”

Pompeo said: “The US-India relationship is already reaching a height, particularly in defense cooperation, a common vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, and growing cooperation in energy.”

Before holding talks with Jaishankar, Pompeo met Modi and congratulated him on his electoral victory.

Harsh V. Pant of the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation told Arab News: “Pomeo’s visit is very significant and sets the tone for the future US-India relationship. It comes at a time when the relationship is passing through some difficulty.”

Pant said: “One visit can’t solve the trade problem. It’s a structural problem in many ways. Trade has always been a frustrating issue for the relationship, but it’s a very small part in the larger strategic ties between the two nations.”

He added: “The convergence between US and India is based on the larger structural reality of the regional and global balance of power. So long as both countries are mindful of that, I think the relationship can grow.”

Pant said: “Where India will have to rethink is on the issue of transnationalism. It isn’t enough for India to say its rise is good for America therefore America should help India. The US is changing, and you’ll have to respond to the changing America.”


Afghan delegates head online for crucial talks

Updated 01 June 2020

Afghan delegates head online for crucial talks

  • Peace hopes rest on virtual forum with Taliban amid virus threat

KABUL: Afghan government and Taliban delegates are expected to begin online talks in mid-June in a bid to end a decades-old conflict in the country, officials told Arab News on Sunday.

While past meetings have been held in person, the latest round of negotiations will take place online because of the threat of coronavirus in the war-ravaged country.

“We see no challenges, the atmosphere and preparations are all set for the talks,” Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah, newly appointed chief of the High Council for National Reconciliation, told Arab News.

Negotiations could begin in “the next 10 or 15 days,” he said.

“The announcement of a cease-fire, a reduction in violence and the exchange of prisoners were all requirements for the start of the talks, and we have had progress on them recently,” Khawzoon said.

On Wednesday the Afghan government released a list of 20 delegates due to hold peace talks with the Taliban.

The team will be led by Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a former spy chief who has held indirect negotiations with the militants in the past outside Afghanistan, he added.

In the lead-up to the talks, President Ashraf Ghani’s government will release 3,000 more Taliban prisoners, an official close to the Afghan leader told Arab News on condition of anonymity.

More than 2,000 Taliban inmates have already been freed as part of a historic peace deal in February.

In return, the Taliban released hundreds of government troops and, in a surprise move, announced a three-day cease-fire last week for Eid Al-Fitr.

The peace moves follow a buildup in fighting between the two sides despite the pandemic. Taliban attacks killed at least 146 people and injured 430 during Ramadan. 

Fears had been growing that the peace deal signed on Feb. 29 between the Taliban and the US would collapse.

The joint cease-fire followed talks in Qatar last week between the Taliban and Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative for Afghanistan.

Khalilzad later traveled to Kabul for meetings with Afghan political leaders over a reduction in violence and an exchange of prisoners. 

“We welcome the Taliban’s decision to observe a cease-fire during Eid, as well as the Afghan government reciprocating and announcing its own,” Khalilzad said last Sunday.

Increasing Taliban attacks on government troops, and political infighting between Ghani and Abdullah over who would assume office as president, have delayed the talks.

After Washington failed to reconcile Ghani and Abdullah, both leaders agreed two weeks ago to share power, with Ghani leading the country for another five years and Abdullah appointed as chief of the peace talks.

Khalilzad described the cease-fire agreement as a “momentous opportunity that should not be missed,” and pressed both sides to agree on a new date to start negotiations.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also urged the two sides to start peace talks, with the release of prisoners as a first step. 

Pompeo said that he expected the Taliban “to adhere to their commitment not to allow released prisoners to return to the battlefield.”

Ghani said the release of Taliban inmates would be “expedited” and that his government’s negotiating team was ready to begin talks “as soon as possible.”

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, could not be reached for comment on the Taliban’s stance.

In the past, the group has insisted it will take part in talks with Kabul only after all 5,000 Taliban prisoners are freed.

Experts hope the latest developments are a step in the right direction.

“The Taliban do not seem to have any reservations about the structure of the government team, so the hope is high that the talks will take place by June 15,” Wahidullah Ghazikhail, an analyst, told Arab News.

“Some of Taliban’s field commanders seem to be divided on the talks, hoping to capture power again after the departure of US forces (by next spring), while the political leaders are pushing for a political settlement,” he said.