politics reportage Politics

Race to the Top

The racial opportunism of a rising political star in Trump's America

By SHAAN AMIN | 1 August 2018

IN LATE JUNE, NIKKI HALEY, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, came for a high-optics two-day tour in India. A brief media advisory issued by the United States mission to the UN slated the visit as diplomatic, designed “to underscore the United States’ shared values and strong alliance with the people of India.” The trip was a whirlwind: she met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, students, industry titans, politicians, and members of various religious communities. Journalists snapped photos of her alongside her kids and husband at various temples and gurdwaras. The 46-year-old American ambassador, who often calls herself “the proud daughter of Indian parents,” also received a rockstar welcome as India’s prodigal daughter, returned.

Haley has been to India only twice since the age of two—both times for diplomatic reasons. This time, Haley returned to deliver tough news. In May, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, exited the watershed Iran-United States nuclear non-proliferation deal forged under his predecessor, Barack Obama, in 2015. Signed by Germany, the European Union and all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the treaty stipulated that Iran curtail its nuclear ambitions for up to 25 years and be subject to close monitoring by external bodies. In return, the United States lifted a 12-year embargo that had crippled the country’s economy. These moves allowed Iran to participate freely in the global market once again, particularly in the export of oil. Making good on an election promise, Trump announced his country’s withdrawal from the deal, declaring, “We will be instituting the highest level of economic sanction.” However, he could not isolate Iran alone. “Any nation that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons could also be sanctioned by the United States,” he added. Washington demanded that all foreign companies introduce a total embargo on Iranian oil by this November.

This announcement put India in a bind. India and Iran share major regional interests. In 2017, Iran sold 471,000 barrels of oil to India daily, making it the country’s third-largest oil supplier. Purchasing oil from Iran is currently cheaper for India than from Saudi Arabia, and even a dollar increase in crude-oil prices is likely to increase the country’s total annual import costs by roughly Rs 823 crore—around $130 million. India also has a strategic interest in building up the Chabahar port in Iran, which would open a gateway into Afghanistan, allowing Indian traders to bypass Pakistan. In February this year, the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, visited India to sign deals boosting trade, investment and regional connectivity between the two countries. For those reasons, among others, the external-affairs minister Sushma Swaraj retorted in a press conference, “It is our clear stand that we abide by UN sanctions, not country-specific sanctions.”

On the other hand, relations between the United States and India have strengthened since the turn of the century. The trade in goods and services between India and the United States totalled nearly $115 billion in 2016—and it has only increased since. However, friction between the two countries grew as the United States postponed its “2+2 dialogue” for defence and security cooperation—a bilateral engagement agreed upon during Modi’s visit to Washington last year—for a third time. Many Indians interpreted this as an Iran-related snub. In a media interview, KC Singh, a former Indian ambassador to Iran, argued that the delay was a pressure tactic by the United States, to see whether India would fall in line apropos Iran. Under the threat of American penalty, India’s oil ministry reluctantly warned its refiners, “There could be drastic reduction or there could be no import at all” of Iranian oil.

When Haley sat down for an interview with the journalist Nidhi Razdan, her host asked if she had discussed the Iran sanctions with Modi. Haley did not answer the question immediately. She responded instead, “The US sees Iran for the threat that it is.” Listing a string of Iran’s perceived prior treaty violations, she continued, with a careful smile, “I think that, as a friend, what India should also decide—is this a country that they want to continue doing business with.” Only then did she confirm that she indeed had what she called a “constructive conversation” with Modi.

Razdan asked pointedly, “There is then clearly a divergence, isn’t there, in the way India looks at Iran and the way the US looks at it?”

Haley sidestepped the question by circling back to allegations of wrongful Iranian behaviour. She said, “They have changed the playing field. And when a country changes the playing field and starts to go in the wrong direction, the rest of us have to go back and say, do we want to change the relationship. The US has had to look at that and I think India is going to have to look at that.”

Haley delivered an implicit ultimatum clothed as a friendly suggestion. The ambassador’s high-wire act was perhaps best made clear in a nearly imperceptible moment. “I think for the future of India and the future of being able to get resources and who they are dependent on, I think it’s”—she paused a moment, to search for the right words and the right emphasis—“we would encourage them to rethink their relationship with Iran.”

As the mouth and shield of American foreign policy, Haley tried to reassure Indians that the United States was not paying them short shrift. When asked about her country’s view of the India-United States relationship, she said, “I wouldn’t be here if India wasn’t a priority.” She also defended without reservation all of Trump’s foreign-policy decisions, including perhaps his government’s most controversial policy to date—the forced separation of migrant children from their parents at the United States’ southern border in cases involving any suspected crimes, including illegal crossings.

Haley’s thinly veiled demand launched a series of high-level talks in India. In July, Indian officials met with delegations from the United States and Iran to negotiate a possible reduction of Iranian oil imports. Meanwhile US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, in an attempt to temper mounting hostility and show American flexibility, said to journalists, “There will be a handful of countries that come to the US and ask for relief. We will consider it.” On 18 July, weeks before the first phase of sanctions against Iran was to go into effect, VK Singh, an Indian minister of state for external affairs, explained India’s stance: “India’s bilateral relations with Iran stand on their own and are not influenced by India’s relations with any third country.”

While Haley’s homecoming-of-sorts may have roiled India—leaving some thrilled and others enraged—she had few words to spare for India upon her return to the United Nations. There, she focussed on different geopolitical tensions—primarily her full-throated defence of Israel in light of what she portrayed as an entrenched bias against it in the UN. Just days before her visit to India, Haley had stage-managed a dramatic US exit from the UN Human Rights Council, calling it a “cesspool of political bias.” But most in the chamber do not labour under the illusion that Haley’s audience is the international community. They know that Haley is doing what she has always done—situating herself for her next domestic political manoeuvre.

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Shaan Amin is a writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. He has previously written for The Atlantic.

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