India's chamber of commerce and industry played a neat balancing act Wednesday, hosting a Iranian ministerial delegation on the third floor of its New Delhi offices at the same time as a major conference on U.S.-Indian relations co-sponsored by the Brookings Institution took place on the floor below.
But if some careful scheduling prevented an uncomfortable meeting of Iranian and American officials in the elevators, the discord between New Delhi and Washington over policy toward Iran and Syria was not so easy to avoid.
India's National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon said the last decade had seen a "remarkable transformation" in the relationship between his country and the United States, buttressed by convergence on several major issues, a shared vision and a shared set of values.
Menon said the two nations shared the same goals of a nuclear-weapons-free Iran and a peaceful, moderate and democratic Syria, and differed only on how to achieve those goals. But he could not resist a dig at the West's approach to Syria which he said "seems to empower extremist, fundamentalist and even terrorist groups."
Brookings President Strobe Talbott, sharing the dias with Menon for the concluding remarks, echoed the Indian official's positive overview but said that on those two issues there was "more than a nuance of difference."
"There is a tendency to think the U.S. and perhaps others in the West are straining at the leash to go after these two regimes," he said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
India's government and businesses are keen to maintain cordial relations with Tehran, which remains an important source of crude oil for the energy-hungry nation, while the United States wants a tougher line to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. On Syria, India has voted in favor of sanctions, but abstained from a vote at the United Nations General Assembly in August denouncing the crackdown there on the grounds that it also advocated regime change.
"A few of us feel it would be helpful if our Indian counterparts were focussing on what the dangerous downside would be of Iran achieving having a nuclear weapon," Talbott said, adding this would soon lead to many other countries in region following suit. "It is your neighborhood."
On Syria, Talbot said "inaction" also had its own costs. "Letting that situation burn itself out or play itself out is not a good option either."
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