By Mahendra Ved*
Business is business, and politics is politics: Apprehensions over Chabahar remain
The tripartite India-Iran-Afghanistan pact on Iran’s Chabahar port’s development and its linking with Afghanistan has left Pakistan feeling ‘encircled’ and ‘isolated’ in the region.
At a three-day workshop organised by an Islamabad think tank, two former defence secretaries, both retired generals, opined that the pact and the port that would come up would be “a security risk for Pakistan.”
The feeling appears to have become more acute after Iranian envoy to Islamabad has revealed that Tehran had offered the project first to Pakistan and to China. He implied that neither took the offer.
‘Business is business, politics is politics’, Iranian envoy Mehdi Honerdoost said at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad (ISSI) on May 26, in the wake critical comments from Pakistan and sections of its media.
The envoy said that the Iranian offer was “still on the table.” He also engaged in deft diplomacy saying that Chabahar and Pakistan’s Gwadar port, far from being rivals, could be “sister ports” that could engage in cooperation in future.
“The deal is not finished. We are waiting for new members. Pakistan, our brotherly neighbours and China, a great partner of the Iranians and a good friend of Pakistan, are both welcome,” the envoy was reported to have told his Pakistani audience.
The Chabahar pact signed on May 23 in the presence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani playing the host snd calling it ‘historic’ and “a milestone” in regional cooperation, consciously keeps out Pakistan since the stake-holders are seeking an alternative route to Karachi.
To India’s offer of spending USD 500 million, Japan is chipping in with funds and technology. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to visit Tehran in August – the first top level visit in 38 years.
Pakistan’s apparent chagrin is evident from the fact that the United States that has yet to fully lift the sanctions on Iran and had asked India and Afghanistan not to make haste has, since the pact’s signing, approved it. The US State Department has noted that there was no military element in the pact that, presumably, would require the US to oppose it.
The approval comes even as Washington has moved to block payment for Pakistan’s F-16 combat aircraft purchase and military aid worth USD 300 million, the latter clearly stipulating that Islamabad must move against the Haqqani network operating from the Pakistani soil. In that wake has come the killing of Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Mansour.
The US thinks Pakistan has ensured that Sirajuddin Haqqani, a wanted man with bounty his head, while not given the top job by the Taliban, is retained as a deputy (naib ameer) of the Afghan Taliban. President Barack Obama, his tenure barely a few months now, has justified Mansour’s killing in a drone attack and has called it “a clear message” to all the stake holders in Afghanistan.
Whoever wins the American presidency in November, it is likely that Washington would retain its tough posture on Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Reflecting Pakistan’s concerns vis a vis the US and especially in the context of Afghanistan’s peace process and linking it to Chabahar pact, Najam Sethi says in an editorial in The Friday Times that this has not been possible because “the obsession of the Pakistani military with the increasing sphere of regional influence of “arch-enemy” India.
“These fears have been exacerbated by the India-Afghan-Iran project to link the Iranian port of Chahbahar with Afghanistan aimed at diminishing the prospects of Pak-China’s CPEC corridor into Afghanistan and central Asia.
Iranian ambassador Honerdoost took care to say the pact was not meant to denigrate or rival the CPEC corridor. It is significant that he marked out India for praise before an Islamabad audience. He said: “India was a good friend during the sanctions, the only country to import oil from us during sanctions”.
That India continued with these imports till the US choked banking transactions being made through Turkey is well known. Also well known, much to the annoyance of the US and Iran’s rivals in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, is that India kept the supply lines open through Dubai to meet the day-to-day needs the sanctions-hit Iranian people. This policy had been devised when Pranab Mukherjee, now India’s President, was the External Affairs Minister under the late PV Narasimha Rao and was continued by subsequent Indian governments.
Pakistan has called the Chabahar pact “a missed opportunity.” But Dawn newspaper has said in an editorial that “Pakistan’s foreign policy is built on rivalry, whereas it would be to the country’s long-term advantage to view its regional environment through the lens of cooperation instead”.
“It is realistic, and not naïve, to suggest that in the evolving regional situation, cooperation yields greater benefits, while rivalry and conflict only serve to bottle the country up further,” the editorial said but again expressed serious doubts whether Islamabad would do this.
*Mahendra Ved is Columnist and Analyst. He can be reached at: [email protected]