NEW DELHI // The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, yesterday urged India to continue to scale back its dependence on Iranian oil and create more bilateral investment opportunities.
At a meeting with students and civic leaders at La Martiniere girls' school in Kolkata yesterday morning, Ms Clinton said she hoped that India "will do even more" to cut down on its oil imports from Iran. India is Iran's second biggest customer of crude, importing about 10 per cent of its crude needs, or 550,000 barrels per day.
"We believe, at this moment in time, the principal threat is a nuclear-armed Iran," Ms Clinton said. "We need India to be part of the international effort."
The West suspects the Iranian nuclear programme could have military purposes, while Tehran insists its plans are entirely peaceful. The United Nations and the US have imposed economic sanctions on Iran because of the dispute - sanctions India is trying to avoid.
Ms Clinton urged India to develop its own energy resources, including a natural gas pipeline through Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University who attended the session, said these were long-term plans and that there were "no immediate solutions provided" he said.
On the first full day of her three-day visit to India, Ms Clinton went on to meet Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the state of West Bengal. She then travelled to New Delhi to meet the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and the Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi, late in the evening, at their homes.
After her meeting with Ms Clinton, Ms Banerjee denied that there had been any talks about the two items thought to be foremost on the agenda: allowing foreign firms to invest in the Indian retail sector, and a water-sharing accord with Bangladesh.
Ms Banerjee has been among a group of Indian politicians opposed to foreign investment in retail, which would allow the entry into India of giant firms such as Wal-Mart and Tesco.
"We will allow foreign investment wherever necessary," she said yesterday.
India now bans foreign investment in multi-brand retail - where various brands and products are sold under one roof - ostensibly to protect the hundreds of thousands of small shopkeepers across the country.
During the town hall meeting, Ms Clinton had said that she identified strongly with Ms Banerjee, who had, like her, broken through the glass ceiling of politics.
"When I meet a woman who has broken through these barriers, I know that whatever her background or her political beliefs, we share the common bond of going through the fire of electoral politics," Ms Clinton said.
Ms Clinton was in Kolkata to "recognise Ms Banerjee's position and influence in national politics," said Mr Chaudhury.
Mr Chaudhury said Ms Clinton had mentioned foreign investment in retail, and that she was aware that "Banerjee has been throwing a spanner in the entire discourse".
"She may have tried to nudge Ms Banerjee to change her mind and see the potential in [foreign investment in retail] and in helping turn Kolkata into a trading hub," he said.
Ms Banerjee told the media that she and Ms Clinton discussed, among other issues, health, education and human rights. She did not reveal any details.
She denied that Ms Clinton brought up the thorny issue of sharing the Teesta River's waters more equitably with Bangladesh.
Mrs Clinton had been in Bangladesh the previous day, the second country on a three-nation tour that began in China.
This morning, Ms Clinton is scheduled to meet India's external affairs minister, SM Krishna, as well as Sushma Swaraj, who leads the opposition in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.
Ms Clinton's talks with Mr Krishna are expected to prepare the ground for the summer's upcoming round of the Indo-US talks, to be held in Washington.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters