There is some excitement in Delhi, and, perhaps less so, in Washington about the imminent 2+2 talks bringing together the Defence Minister and External Affairs Minister of India with their US counterparts.

It is interesting to note the gender parity of 2+2. Since 1789 when the USA had its first president no woman has been elected to that office, whereas India has had a woman prime minister, and a woman president. While it would be foolish to anticipate the topics or the contours of this important and innovative exercise, reportedly pushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is keen to broaden and deepen relations with the USA, we can be certain that India's relations with Iran under US sanctions will come up.

To begin with, let us look at the Indian foreign policy establishment's handling of the matter after US President Donald Trump, without giving any cogent reason, decided to walk out of the nuclear deal with Iran, technically known as JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) piloted by the Obama presidency.

Trump should not be blamed for failing to give a cogent reason for walking out, for the obvious reason that there is no good reason to walk out. JCPOA was negotiated over twenty months by competent teams from either side. Apart from the USA, the Permanent 5 of the Security Council, Germany and the European Union negotiated with Iran.

President Trump had as a candidate made it clear that he considered JCPOA the worst ever agreement signed by the USA. Therefore, there was reason to believe he would reimpose sanctions on Iran at a time of his choosing.

We may assume, though we do not know, that the Policy Planning Division of the Indian government's Ministry of External Affairs would have anticipated Trump's decision announced in May 2018, and prepared a paper on the strategy India should adopt. If such a paper was prepared, it would appear that the MEA kept it secret and did not share it with the rest of the government.

From what one can make out from material available in the public domain, India's response so far to Trump's decision has been a study in incoherence, incompetence, and convoluted verbosity. This comment might sound harsh. Let us illustrate that last point about verbosity. On September 2 a top finance ministry official said:

“We have already weighed our options… various scenarios have been thought about and in each one, certain series of sequences have been planned. Provisions have somewhat been made where necessary. In many cases, you just have to do it when it happens. The key is to react fast. So rather than predispose ourselves to a particular line of response, what we can do is have a whole bunch of options and then as things evolve, we know which option to take. The point is to maintain optionality rather than pre-commit to a certain sequence."

Obviously, the learned official does not seem to understand that it is not simply a question of where to import oil from if we cannot import it from Iran. That it is much more than a question of sourcing oil should have been explained to other ministries by the MEA.

If India meekly succumbs to US demands, there are other implications, consequences, and costs. Sadly, CEOs of oil companies and even the petroleum minister spoke to the media, repeating that India was not dependent on oil from Iran, that other sources had been identified, and arrangements were being worked out. Obviously, we may conclude that the MEA did not find it necessary to brief other ministries on the geopolitical dimensions of the dilemma facing India.

India has repeatedly announced its intention and ambition to be a Great Power. Often, some leaders speak as though India is already such a power, a claim that does not convince international relations scholars who have observed India's rather pusillanimous policy towards recent developments in the Maldives, for instance, in sad contrast to India's decisive military intervention there in 1988.

Obviously, a meek surrender to the US is not in India's interest. Giving the impression that there will be such a surrender is not good policy either.

In diplomacy, correct signalling is of paramount importance. India sent the wrong signals in two ways.

First, the pronouncements of the petroleum minister and the CEOs of oil companies.

Second, when US Permanent Representative to the UN Nikki Hailey called on Prime Minister Modi media reports, perhaps based on a briefing from the US embassy, gave the impression that she 'lectured' on the importance of India's falling in line with US sanctions, and the PM listened.

Let us look at the big picture. We live in a world not yet multi-polar, especially in the area of international financial transactions. There we find uni-polarity of a toxic variety.

US sanctions are of two types.

First, US companies cannot deal with Iran. This is a sovereign decision of the US which it is competent to take under international law.

Then there are the secondary sanctions on foreign companies dealing with Iran. Such companies cannot do business in Iran as any US company doing business with such a foreign company will be penalised. These secondary sanctions do not stand scrutiny in international law or accepted norms of inter-state relations. This writer has come across friends in the banking sector who are so scared of US sanctions that they cannot think of defying them.

The other important dimension is India's stake. India is prevented by Pakistan from having land access to Afghanistan and thereby to the rest of Central Asia. India has been engaged in the upgrading of the port in Chabahar in Afghanistan with a view to reach out to Iran and Central Asia.

Suppose India succumbs to US pressure and reduces significantly or to zero imports from Iran. How will Iran respond?

We might remember how India a few years ago voted against Iran at the UN although the US case against Iran was weak, mainly because with the 123 Agreement hanging fire India agreed to be blackmailed. Iran might terminate or suspend India's participation in the Chabahar port project. That would be a big blow to India's plans to be a Great Power and to establish commercial connectivity with resource-rich Central Asia, not to speak of its plans for Afghanistan where it has already invested heavily.

What should India have done? When the USA signalled its opposition to India's buying the S-400 missile system from Russia, threatening sanctions under CAATSA (the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made an unambiguous statement that India was going to ahead with the purchase. She did not ask for any waiver.

The US read the signal and initiated the move for giving a waiver. Similarly, when Trump walked out of JCPOA, India should have come out with a categorical decision to continue importing oil from Iran.

It is absurd to think that India has no trump cards to play in this diplomatic bridge game. Is not India the biggest or one of the biggest importers of arms from US?

The mighty military-industrial-Congressional complex will make sure its important market is safe at any cost. Diplomacy is the art of punching above one's weight, not establishing a reputation for punching below one's weight.

We see the government looking on helplessly as the rupee tumbles, petrol and diesel prices move up, inflation gathers momentum, fishermen in Tamil Nadu declare a strike to protest the diesel price rise, and the dawn of acche din is delayed again and again.

Let us conclude with a thought experiment. When Trump walked out, India secretly talked to Iran and offered a bargain: if Iran offers deep discounts India will continue to buy from Iran, and announce the decision so that other countries might be influenced. The US might threaten, but recognising the importance of the Indian market for weapons the US will find a way to recognise ground realities and 'graciously' offer a waiver that India did not even ask for. India graciously accepts the waiver. Petrol and diesel prices come down instead of soaring up and fishermen in Tamil Nadu go on catching fish and earning their livelihood. India's claim to be a power to be reckoned with is acknowledged by the rest of the world.

Ambassador K. P. Fabian is an Indian Diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000, during which time he was posted to Madagascar, Austria, Iran, Sri Lanka, Canada, Finland, Qatar and Italy.