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Hillary Clinton to drill India on Iranian oil

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on a three-day visit to India. At the top of the agenda is the country's imports of Iranian oil despite US sanctions.

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International economic sanctions on Iran had made oil trade difficult, because Indian oil importers had to scramble to find banks willing to handle transactions with Tehran. The barter exchange would help India pay for the Iranian crude without resorting to dollar payments, thus bypassing international banks.

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An Indian delegation visited Iran in March to promote Indian goods including machinery, iron, steel, minerals, and automobiles and Clinton's visit coincides with that of a large Iranian group that will be in New Delhi to explore Indian goods and services Tehran can buy to offset the enormous rupee payments running into billions of dollars that Iran has accumulated.

The US official downplayed the presence of the Iranian delegation, saying. "I don't think we are too concerned about it." The official added that the US special envoy for global energy issues, Carlos Pasqual, will visit India later in May to follow up on Clinton's talks, the official said.

In her talks with Indian officials, Clinton will also be pressing for the country to continue economic reforms and trade liberalization, including dropping restrictions on foreign investment in the finance sector and allowing large western retailers to open up, the US official said.

Hillary will meet Mamata

Before heading to New Delhi on Monday, Clinton will meet in Kolkata with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the top elected leader of West Bengal state. Banerjee, a key partner of India's ruling coalition, has in recent months opposed many of the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh-led Congress party's plans to carry out economic reforms.

Clinton is expected to push for expanding US investment opportunities in West Bengal and seek Banerjee's views on the entry of Wal-Mart-type multi-brand retailers into India. Banerjee has been a vocal opponent of opening up India's retail sector saying it would harm poor shop owners.

In talks with Singh in New Delhi, Clinton will look at regional security issues and the India-US Strategic Dialogue meeting scheduled to be held in Washington next month. India's major concern, however, is the security situation in Afghanistan following the drawdown of NATO troops from the war-torn country in 2014.India has been taking a lead in the reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and plans to host a regional investors' conference on Afghanistan in June.

The US will also be looking at trade and investment opportunities in India. With its economy expected to grow at around 7 percent over the next few years, India is an important market for US exports. Trade between the two countries is expected to cross $100 billion this year.

However, some of the sheen has worn off the high expectations from US-India relations in the years following the signing of a landmark civil nuclear deal in 2008. Washington was riled when India chose a French company for an $11 billion order for 126 fighter jets for the Indian air force. India has sourced numerous other big ticket defense purchases from US companies.

There is also a growing perception in Washington that the Indian government has not delivered on economic reforms and has been dragging its feet on implementing key nuclear legislation that would enable US companies to invest in India.

Over the past year, Singh's government has been bogged down by a series of scandals and resistance from its coalition partners that have brought economic reforms to a halt.

* George reported from New Delhi.

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