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Clinton heads to India to breathe life into ties

874cfiKOLKATA: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to India on Sunday with hopes of reinvigorating a relationship seen as losing steam despite years of efforts to bring the world's two largest democracies closer.

Clinton will be wading into a row over Iran, which is sending a large trade delegation this week to New Delhi despite US threats to slap sanctions in a matter of weeks on countries that buy the Islamic republic's oil.

Yet Clinton may find her final stop on a three-nation tour the most easy-going, after a tense visit to China defusing a crisis over a dissident and a stop to urge reconciliation in polarised Bangladesh.

The veteran politician will fly Sunday from Bangladesh's capital Dhaka to the Indian metropolis Kolkata, where she will tour monuments and meet ordinary citizens in her latest bid to use her personal popularity as a diplomatic tool.

Clinton said that she saw ample progress in relations with India, pointing to rising trade and cooperation in areas from education to clean energy.

"I think it's like any relationship -- there is progress in some areas that we are very heartened by, and there is more work to be done," Clinton told reporters.

"But that's the commitment that we make when we say to another country, we want to be your partner," she said.

The United States and India, which had uneasy relations during the Cold War, started to reconcile in the late 1990s under former president Bill Clinton and reached a symbolic milestone when his successor George W. Bush championed a deal that ended India's decades of isolation over its nuclear programme.

But longtime champions of the relationship have begun to voice disappointment, with US businesses upset that India's parliament has not passed legislation they seek to enter in the nuclear and retail sectors.

India has bristled at a US law that would impose sanctions on banks from countries that buy oil from Iran due to concerns over its contested nuclear programme. Only EU nations and Japan have so far been given exemptions to the law which starts on June 28.

India has been reducing oil imports from Iran, but is highly dependent on foreign energy and has historically enjoyed friendly relations with Tehran.

T.P. Sreenivasan, a former Indian ambassador to the United Nations, said that expectations for the US-India relationship had not been met but that Clinton had the advantage of being considered a friend of New Delhi.

The visit "comes at a useful time as there is a certain amount of strain in relations that needs to be rectified," he said.

"The relationship has lost momentum partly because there is nothing new that either side can think of and also both are preoccupied with their own internal problems," he said.

But C. Raja Mohan, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, said that India and the United States had the same objectives in Iran and would likely want to "keep their differences to manageable limits."

"Contrary to what one might think, the relations are reasonably on track in terms of their engagement. The US is in election mode; India has its own problems," Mohan said.

Experts noted that the United States made little fuss last month when India tested its nuclear-capable Agni V missile, which can reach far into China, a far cry from fierce US condemnation of New Delhi's nuclear efforts in the 1990s.

"Now the US views India as a strategic partner with growing economic and political clout that will contribute to promoting security and stability in Asia," said a paper by Lisa Curtis and Baker Spring, fellows at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think tank.

India has recently worked to repair relations with historic enemy Pakistan, removing one potential headache for the United States whose own relations with Islamabad have been in crisis since last year's killing of Osama bin Laden.

Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2012