NEW DELHI — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in India's capital Monday with a sharp message for the country's leaders: Stop doing business with Iran.
Yet less than a mile from her meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, there was another group meeting with Indian leaders. An Iranian trade delegation is in New Delhi, overlapping with Clinton's trip and potentially undermining one of its main purposes.
The Obama administration is turning up the pressure on India to join international sanctions against Iran that would choke off funds for the country's nuclear program. India, which relies on Iran for about 12 percent of its oil imports, has so far been unwilling to go along.
"This is a regime that has a history of aggressive behavior," Clinton warned of Iran during a town hall-style meeting Monday morning in Kolkata, her first stop in a three-day swing through India. "And I don't think you deal with aggressors by giving in to them. . . . Our goal is resolve this peacefully and diplomatically, and that's why we need India to be part of the international effort."
Time is running out for India to make a decision. Starting June 28, the United States will impose sanctions on any foreign bank or company engaging in oil transactions with the Iranian central bank. Already, the European Union has agreed to a full embargo beginning July 1.
Clinton said the United States "commended" the steps taken so far by India to reduce its imports from Iran but urged its ally in the region to go further.
The United States needs as many partners as possible as it presses Iran to cooperate. Representatives from six countries, including the U.S., met with Iran in April to negotiate, and more talks are expected with the United Nations later this month.
"We do not believe that Iran would've come to the table if there had not been sanctions and pressure," Clinton said. "We do not believe Iran will peacefully resolve this unless the pressure continues."
The Obama administration has tried to build a closer relationship with India. At the Kolkata event Monday, Clinton repeated Obama's declaration that the United States' relationship with India will be "one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century."
Given shared concerns about security issues in China and Pakistan, some observers believe the world's two biggest democracies would make natural partners. And trade between the countries has expanded steadily, from $9 billion in 1995 when Clinton made her visit to India to $100 billion now.
But progress has been bumpy. Aside from the issue of sanctions against Iran, U.S. businesses have also been frustrated that India, unlike China, has not allowed retailers such as Wal-Mart to set up stores in the country and gain access to its booming middle class.
"I come with certainly a belief that India can compete with anybody anywhere," Clinton said. "The more open India becomes over time, the greater the standards of living and opportunity for the broader number of people will be."
Clinton's three-day swing through India followed a harrowing week of diplomacy in Beijing negotiating the fate of activist Chen Guangcheng. She stopped first in the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, over the weekend to meet with the country's dueling female political leaders, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the former head of the government, Khaleda Zia. Clinton also met with famed microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus.
On Sunday, she flew just over the border to Kolkata, a historic city that was once the capital of the British Indian empire.
Clinton's motorcade raced from the airport to the city, passing a stretch of farmland dotted with office buildings under construction, signals of West Bengal's ambition to become an investment hub for tech companies.
At the town hall held at a girls' school, the moderator and members of the audience implored Clinton to run for president of the United States in 2016.
"I'm very flattered but I feel like it's time for me to step off the high wire," she said. "I've been involved at the highest level of American politics for 20 years now. I'd like to come back to India and just wander around without having the streets be closed and a lot of security around."
Clinton later met for nearly an hour with one of the most famous women in India, Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal and a critical ally for the ruling Congress party. Banerjee, who is also known as "Didi," meaning older sister, ended 34 years of Communist rule in West Bengal last year.
"I know for myself how difficult it is for women to get elected anywhere," said Clinton in Kolkata. "When I meet a woman who's broken through those barriers . . . we share a common bond, if you will, having gone through the fire of electoral politics."