India-Iran Chabahar Deal – OpEd


The fear of US sanctions has failed to deter India from signing a 10-year contract with Iran to develop and operate the Iranian port of Chabahar. The deal is expected to enhance regional connectivity and facilitate trade involving India, Iran, Afghanistan, and other nations. India’s Shipping Minister Sonowal had called the agreement a “Historic moment in India-Iran ties” while Jaishankar felt the deal “will clear the pathway for bigger investments to be made in the port.”

The US has warned of potential sanctions on any country considering business deals with Iran, hours after India signed a 10-year contract to operate the Chabahar port in that country. India took over operations of the port at the end of 2018 just after it was informed by the US that the port would not come under sanctions. This was subsequently underlined a year later at the Indo-US two-plus-two when the US side said it would exempt the modernisation of Chabahar port because it served as an important gateway for India to send humanitarian supplies to Afghanistan. The other route from the sea into landlocked Afghanistan is from Pakistan that denies transit rights to India.

Port of Chabahar has an area of 11 Sq km and is located in Iran’s Sistan. Chabahar’s geostrategic position is in a key position to access the Oman Sea, Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. Its location outside of the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz has been very beneficial to Iran’s trade since the Iran – Iraq war. The port will be connected to the Trans-Iranian railway with the completion of the Kerman-Zahedan railway. Border Roads Organization of India constructed the Delaram – Zaranj highway, and it was completed in 2009.Chabahar port is now linked to the INSTC and a trial has already been completed. Port of Chabahar will also serve as a check on China’s growing influence in the Arabian Sea because of Gwadar deep seaport in Pakistan’s Baluchistan region.

The Chabahar port will offer Indian goods a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia through a road and rail project known as the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). India has already asked member countries of the INSTC to incorporate the Chabahar route into its future expansion plans. The route will bypass Pakistan whose ties with India have been in deep freeze for several years. US sanctions on Iran over its purported nuclear programme have restricted the operations of this port, which New Delhi had proposed to develop back in 2003. Iran-India-Uzbekistan trilateral formation is to open a route from the Indian Ocean to Central Asian republics, the Caucasus and Russia. 

A Strategic Race is on between India and China  with the Chabahar  and Gwadar Ports development and further linking to trade routes to the Central Asian region, Middle East, onwards to Europe and Russia. Both the ports are significant due to their geostrategic position as warm water ports of the Arabian Sea for the emerging economic powers India and China. The Gwadar port of Pakistan   a ‘Strategic military enterprise’ is funded and managed by China and linked to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). No doubt China is now the economic power of the world while the US is trying to contain China’s growing global influence. Importance of Gwadar port of Pakistan will further be enhanced for China in case of a conflict between US and China in the South China Sea. China then will have to some degree depend on Gwadar port and the CPEC once it is fully operational.

China and India both want to extend their influence to the resource-rich region of Central Asia. The Russia–Ukraine War and Western sanctions on Russia have seen a sudden rise in connecting Central Asia to China and Russia because of the disruption in international trade and transport routes caused by the conflict. Even Iran has seen a sudden rise in its importance as a transit and transport hub connecting China and Central Asia to Europe and also to Russia.

Gwadar port faces a lot of security challenges as compared to Chabahar. The Gwadar port is not likely to be safe due to the Baluchistan disturbed situation because of the local insurgent groups, further influence Taliban and other terrorist groups in Pakistan and the Political instability in Afghanistan. In future the people of Gilgit – Baltistan may also rise against the Chinese presence on the CPEC projects. Gilgit-Baltistan Protests are frequent with sit-ins, and demonstrations against the Federal Government of Pakistan and the Government of Gilgit-Balitistan. Citizens of Pakistani occupied Kashmir (POK) have started calling for an intervention by the Indian government, saying that the situation is getting out of hand and “India cannot remain aloof” and India now should focus all its attention on POK and help and facilitate the independence of this occupied territory, including Gilgit-Baltistan.”

Traditionally, shipments from South Asia go via the Suez Canal to the ports of Rotterdam (The Netherlands), Antwerp (Belgium), Piraeus (Greece) and Valencia (Spain). The Russia-Ukraine War has changed earlier equations. Russia, China, India, Iran along with many other countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and are navigating for alternatives. A large number of new transport corridors are now being developed and opened to traffic in Central Asia. With this China is extending its influence to CAR and the near future may replace Russian influence and dependency ultimately through their economic power.

These corridors are going to attract the interest of a growing number of countries located along the route. If these corridors are to succeed in the long term with physical connectivity between Europe and Asia member countries especially will have to consider and involve a new set of partner countries. If these corridors are successful, it will be a big economic game changer for the CARs and West Asian countries given the advantages.

India is also uneasy with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which was announced in 2013. The massive infrastructure project involving over 100 countries has meant major construction taking place in India’s neighbourhood, such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. India needs to keep promoting Chabahar as a strategic port on the Makran coast as it addresses both the ease of trading as well as India’s security needs in the region. 

However, like in the case of the purchase of Russian oil at discounted prices, India has chosen to prioritise its own interests and not allowed existing geopolitical alignments to become an impediment. Last year, India had used the Chabahar port to send 20,000 tons of wheat to aid-starved Afghanistan. 

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said, “The world’s view of India has changed over the years and no major global issue is decided without New Delhi’s consultation.” The purposeful pursuit of national interest in shifting global dynamics may not be easy; but it must be done. And the real obstacle to the rise of India is not anymore, the barriers of the world. The concept of what we call an extended neighbourhood is now in play and being exerted. It is evident that India is going all out to make its presence felt in the extended neighbourhood. 

Patial RC

Patial RC is a retired Infantry officer of the Indian Army and possesses unique experience of serving in active CI Ops across the country and in Sri Lanka. Patial RC is a regular writer on military and travel matters in military professional journals. The veteran is a keen mountaineer and a trekker.

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