US signals continuing exemption for India’s use of Iran’s Chabahar port

Iranian flags flutter during an inauguration ceremony for Shahid Beheshti Port in the southeastern Iranian coastal city of Chabahar. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - The US appreciates India's reduction of crude oil purchases from Iran, and has discussed preserving an exemption for India's stake in Iran's strategic Chabahar port, which "allows India to continue essential humanitarian supplies to Afghanistan as well as provide Afghanistan with economic alternatives," a senior State Department official told journalists in Washington ahead of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's visit to India starting June 24.

The US had "succeeded in working well with India" on Iran, the official added.

The official also said the US has no plans to place caps on H1B work visas for Indians, as earlier reported in some media.

"Indians have contributed under the H1B programme to the US economy (and) the Secretary will be able to assure the Indian leadership that we have no plans to place caps on H1B work visas… this review is not targeted at India."

More broadly, the Trump administration sees Asia-Pacific democracies as "stewards... of a rules based order in a vital region," the official said.

"India is a crucial partner in the Trump Administration's vision for a free and open Indo Pacific region. It shares our concerns towards challenges in the region."

"The purpose is to broaden and deepen the relationship" the official said.

"We want to seize this moment early in (Indian Prime Minister Narendra) Modi's second administration to accelerate what has been the upward trajectory of our relationship, to set some ambitious goals."

The official cited "extraordinary cooperation" with India in the broader Indo Pacific including a recent group sale along with the Philippines in the South China Sea, and a reinvigorated quadrilateral dialogue with Australia and Japan. The first ever tri-services military exercise with India is scheduled for later this year in the Bay of Bengal, to increase force interoperability.

The "two plus two" dialogue in which the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence meet with their Indian counterparts, had provided "strategic direction" as well as breakthroughs in military interoperability and high-tech trade licensing, the official said, citing sale of high-tech defence equipment to India.

"Secretary Pompeo will talk specifically… about expanding security, energy and space cooperation," the senior official said. He will also meet with Indian business leaders.

The US was "pleased with the growth of bilateral and defence trade and the narrowing of the trade deficit in recent years," the official said.

But American companies have "concerns over market access and the lack of a level playing field in important sectors and recent Indian government measures such as increasing tariffs on a range of products, restricting e-commerce operations and limiting the free flow of data are particularly problematic," the official said.

"Our envision is to be able to... jump start a discussion on trade and move quickly to resolve long standing irritants," the official said.

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