Ever since Pakistan was created in a bloody partition in 1947, India cannot access the traditional land route to Afghanistan and Central Asia. In a certain way, this obstruction was corrected when on December 3, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani inaugurated the first phase of its Chabahar port. Located at the Sea of Oman, the port allows India to side-step Pakistan and send its goods directly to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Iran, reportedly, has also offered management control of the port to India that has caused grave anxieties in neighbouring Pakistan.
Built with Indian help, the port has taken long to come up. Though, India has been in discussion with Iran on developing Chabahar port since 2003, the project finally gathered momentum in 2016 when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Tehran and signed an agreement to invest US$500 million in the port. Besides, a trilateral agreement was signed between Iran, Afghanistan and India that created a concessionary regime for their companies that use the burgeoning trade corridor.
After the signing of the trilateral agreement last year, the wheat shipment which was sent through Chabahar to Kabul in November this year was the first of the many that will follow in the coming months. The dispatch of the consignment took place two days after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Delhi thus creating an impression that India’s port deal with Iran had US backing.
Iranian sources disagree with this view and claim that India exercised strategic autonomy even when it knew that US President Donald Trump was opposed to the P5+1 deal with Tehran and was working towards annulling it. The Indian government could have been emboldened by the fact that Tillerson was quite tough with Pakistan, asking it to clean up its act and stop pandering to religious extremist elements. He had also stated that the US government was not averse to Indian business deals with Iran. Evidently, these statements were read together by Indians who have been cramped by the refusal of Pakistan to allow Afghanistan and India to trade through the land route. The trade and transit treaty between Pakistan and land-locked Afghanistan allowed only one sided trade — only Afghan goods were allowed to reach Indian borders and the trucks had to return empty. Afghanistan has refused to negotiate a new deal until India is also included in it. Some months ago, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had ordered blocking the passage of Pakistani trucks through his country to Central Asia until it rebooted its system in favour of India. Expectedly, Pakistan refused to bend until the Chabahar port showed signs of activation. The country’s Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa flew down to Kabul and offered a new deal, but Kabul has not relented.
Afghanistan has a new trading option that did not exist earlier. The wheat consignment from India’s Kandla port reached Kabul in five days and Iranian authorities claim that it can be brought down to four with better handling etc. India is investing in a railway line that will connect the port with the 7,200-km-long North South Corridor, which links India to Russia and Europe. India has tested the route through Iran’s port Bandar Abbas and has found that it takes 20 odd days — less than the time the goods would take to reach European destinations when negotiating via Suez Canal. When Chabahar is connected with Bandar Abbas, then it could also shoulder some of the burden of the corridor.
Iran President Hassan Rouhani is making light of any strategic contestation built in the development of the port, as it comes up just 72 kms from Gwadar in Pakistan. Iran claims that Chabahar is a commercial port and its Free zone is open to all the countries. Gwadar is the entry point for China’s ambitious US$ 63 billion 3,200-km-long Economic Corridor (CPEC), which links it with Kashgar in Xinjiang province. Gwadar port, which is deeper than Chabahar, allows China to access the Middle-East to transport uninterrupted oil and gas through the corridor and avoid the choke points that are located on the sea lanes used by its oil tankers. The Asian giant has always feared that it could be starved of fuel supplies if these narrow sea passages like the Strait of Malacca are shut down in an armed confrontation with the West.
China, as well as Pakistan, fear that India would use Chabahar to compromise the security and viability of Gwadar. Besides, they fear that Afghanistan, which has been identified by the Pakistani army to provide “strategic depth” in the event of a war with India, to its discomfort is showing greater strategic freedom after the route opened up. Afghanistan’s aggressive attitude has led to shrinking of trade with Pakistan and its reliance on Iran has increased manifold. Once the India-Afghan-Iran corridor becomes active, then there is a possibility that Indian goods could start dominating the region. People in Sistan-Baluchistan, where both the ports are located, speak the Hindi language. They all watch Bollywood films and use smuggled Indian medicines to take care of their colds and fevers. In short, India’s physical presence in Chabahar and the surrounding region could cause existential worries for its arch enemy, Pakistan, which has been under pressure from the US to clean up its act.
India, which is investing billions of dollars in Chabahar’s infrastructure — including its railways — would hate it if the US decides to re-impose any sanction for lack of compliance in the nuclear deal or if hostilities break out with Saudi Arabia. It is then that New Delhi would have to figure out how to stay the course without upsetting a very touchy Riyadh. In recent months, India and Saudi Arabia have come a lot closer and the government in Delhi has quietly shown great appreciation for Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s endeavour to revert to moderate Islam. In the last few years, India has hiked its consumption of Saudi oil at the expense of Iranian crude, but has continued its engagement with Tehran to buy a stake in the Farzand-B gas field.
In this complex world, where interests and ties of countries overlap, it will be interesting to see how India’s disruptive investment in Chabahar plays out on other countries.
Sanjay Kapoor is Independent Media’s stringer based in Delhi. He is also the Editor of the publication in India “Hard News.”