Chabahar Port: A game-changing deal



India had been anxiously waiting for the opportunity that came its way when the US, the UN and the European Union lifted in January this year most of their sanctions against Iran following a positive report by the International Atomic Energy Agency over Tehran’s controversial nuclear programme. New Delhi soon began negotiations with Tehran and in May, it reached a strategically significant agreement with the Persian Gulf nation to develop its Chabahar port and related infrastructure to bring it to a level when it can easily compete with Pakistan’s Gwadar port, located at a distance of just 72 km in Balochistan. Of course, India’s involvement in the Iranian project with a credit line of $500 million is not as big as that of China in Gwadar port, but the deal, signed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Tehran, is considered a game-changing development in the region.

India has now got an assured and direct access to Afghanistan and Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. The development is bound to push up India’s trade with these countries besides providing strategic advantages in Afghanistan. As the situation prevails now, India figures very insignificantly on the list of countries doing trade with the Central Asian nations, though there is a huge potential to be tapped for both sides. These countries’ trade with India is hardly 1 per cent, though they are very rich in natural resources, particularly in oil and gas, required by India’s fast growing economy. But the supply route-related problems have been discouraging these nations to increase their trade with India. The situation is bound to change with India entering into the deal with Iran over Chabahar port. India’s role in Chabahar can provide a new momentum to the country’s economic march.

The Chabahar deal, no doubt, is a major achievement of the Modi government. Besides the advantages that it will bring from Central Asia, it will help India consolidate its gains in Afghanistan, where New Delhi has been investing considerably in various fields to rebuild that war-torn country. The only land route for India to reach Afghanistan is through Pakistan which is not available to it because of Islamabad’s suspicions and a short-sighted approach. Despite sustained efforts made to convince Pakistan that allowing Indian goods to reach Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries through Pakistan’s territory would be economically beneficial for Islamabad too, no concrete result could be seen. Since Pakistan continues to treat Afghanistan as a neighbour which can help fulfil its long-cherished desire for strategic depth, Islamabad has been feeling threatened by Kabul’s increasing closeness to New Delhi after the discredited Taliban regime in Afghanistan was overthrown in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York’s Trade Towers and the Pentagon in Washington DC.

Afghanistan and Pakistan have been having a love-hate relationship because of Islamabad’s interference in Kabul’s internal affairs through the ISI’s patronage to various Taliban factions, yet Pakistan has been trying to prove to the world community that there can be no peace in Afghanistan without Islamabad’s involvement in any such effort.India’s growing presence in Afghanistan is obviously viewed by Islamabad as a big hindrance in its designs with regard to that land-locked country. Hence the denial to India of access to Afghanistan though Pakistan’s territory on various pretexts. The problem will now be easily surmountable for India due to the Chabahar deal signed with Iran.

Iran’s Chabahar port, which falls in the Gulf of Oman, is as strategically located as Pakistan’s Gwadar port, which has been taken over by China on the pretext of expanding and developing it as a major trading junction. The location of both ports is such that each would face a tough competition from the other one.The Pakistani viewpoint in this regard has been summed up by Muhammad Daim Fazil, who teaches at the University of Gujarat, Sialkot Campus. Fazil points out in his latest article carried in Diplomat magazine that Gwadar has an edge over Chabahar in some ways. While China is in full control of Gwadar, India does not have such a role to play in the case of Chabahar.

The second significant factor, according to Fazil, is that there may be a clash of economic interests between India and Iran, impacting the functioning of Chabahar. As against this, the interests of China and Pakistan are different and would not come in the way of functioning of Gwadar. Despite these factors, Fazil admits, “Whether Gwadar or Chabahar, the development of both ports can assist millions of people.
Gwadar may well hold a slight edge because of its importance and utility, but it can produce best results only when there are no major regional threats. The same goes for Chabahar. Economic cooperation and integration is what’s needed in South Asia and even beyond. That, however, demands enhanced cooperation among all involved parties and the dissolution of all outstanding strategic and political misunderstandings.”

That is alright, but India will have to take care of at least two major security issues for its goods to reach their destination safely in Central Asia. One, India will have to ensure that the Pakistan Navy, which has a strong presence in the waters where Chabahar is located, does not create any roadblocks for Indian consignments reaching there.Two, once goods are loaded on trucks at Chabahar for being transported to the receiving parties in Central Asia, these vehicles will be passing through areas in Afghanistan where Taliban factions have their undisputed control. How to meet the Taliban threat will not be an easy task for India.

The Iranian Press described the deal as a major gain for both India and Iran with New Delhi now being comfortably “positioned against its strong competitor (China) by investing in the port.” Yet India needs to be wary of the Iranians, who may not like any move by New Delhi which may hurt the interests of China and Pakistan. Some time back China and Iran signed a 10-year economic cooperation agreement with Beijing committing to increase its trade to $600 billion after the lifting of sanctions against Iran. Though Tehran is willing to supply as much oil and gas as India wants, Iran needs both China and Pakistan too for its energy exports. Lately, Iran has been strengthening its relations with Pakistan to meet the threat posed by the Islamic State extremists. For some time Tehran has been cultivating friendship with Afghanistan’s Taliban factions too to take on the Islamic State, which has been threatening Iranian interests in the Gulf region in various ways.

The situation is such that all the players in the region would do all they can to gain the maximum advantages possible under the changed circumstances. These are times of cooperative competition when India has to play its cards very cautiously, keeping its varied interests in view. Despite the opportunities available after the Chabahar deal, New Delhi will have to continue to mount diplomatic pressure on Islamabad to allow the land route to be used for transporting India’s goods to Afghanistan as there is a humanitarian angle also in the matter. Pakistan must be forced to abandon its negative policy on the land route to Afghanistan and Central Asia. A change in Pakistan’s policy will also go a long way in bringing India and Pakistan closer.