By C Uday Bhaskar
Both Iran and Afghanistan were in the news last week for different reasons and the prevailing election frenzy in India may have diluted their visibility in the public domain. Yet, viewed together, these developments have the potential to significantly impact India’s long term regional strategic options and immediate security opportunities and hence must figure prominently on the immediate agenda of the next government in New Delhi.
On Thursday (April 17), the IAEA, the global nuclear inspector, released a report on the contentious Iranian nuclear program and confirmed that as per an earlier agreement reached with the P-5 plus 1 (five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany ) , Teheran had neutralized half of its enriched uranium stockpile. Consequently, the US is preparing to release Iranian funds frozen since 1979 upto US $ 450 million in the first instance – and this could pave the way for a gradual lifting of the US-led economic, trade and financial sanctions mounted against the Islamic republic.
There are many more steps in the Iranian nuclear deal that have to be satisfactorily completed and many determined opponents lurk in the shadows who could derail the deal and therefore it will take considerable time and political perspicacity for Teheran to be fully integrated into the international system. The larger challenge of an abiding rapprochement between the US and Iran is currently under the dark cloud of visa denial to an Iranian diplomat and the both the objectivity and sagacity of the Obama administration in relation to Teheran will be under test. Yet it is evident that Iran, the southern Asian region and the global strategic grid will be significantly impacted – and in a positive manner – if the major powers stay the course of reconciliation, and to that extent the IAEA report of April 17 could well be the heralding of a critical cusp on which the Iran issue is poised.
Concurrently, in the same week, on April 16 Afghan officials announced in Kabul that India, Iran and Afghanistan would soon finalize the trilateral agreement to realize the long awaited sea-link that would connect Afghanistan to India through the Iranian port of Chabahar. Strategically located on the Makaran coast, Chabahar is about 70 km west of the Pakistani port of Gwadar that is now being managed by China.
This India-Iran project to develop Chabahar is more than a decade old and was first mooted in January 2003 when then Iranian President Mohamad Khatami had visited Delhi as the chief guest at the Indian Republic Day parade. However, for a variety of reasons, including the US-led sanctions against Iran over the nuclear issue, India was unable to make any significant progress in developing Chabahar. But the grand plan to build a road through Afghanistan upto Iran and then link to Chabahar had been envisioned and some road links have been since completed .
The strategic rationale for this ambitious project, from Delhi’s perspective was to overcome the denial of Indian access to Afghanistan by the inflexible anti-India constituency in Pakistani . A sea-road-rail link from India through Chabahar in Iran and along the road-rail network into Afghanistan would also enable India to obtain valuable access into Central Asia. Consequently, the Indian Army’s Border Roads Organization (BRO), in the face of severe odds, completed the Delaram-Zaranj road link in Afghanistan by 2009 and now the Chabahar port is connected to the Kandahar-Herat highway.
Earlier in February, the Indian ambassador to Iran confirmed that Chabahar would receive the traction required to complete the building of appropriate port infrastructure and that an investment of $ 150 million was earmarked for this purpose. When completed, the Chabahar port would provide a more cost-effective and time-saving alternative to Dubai which currently handles much of the container traffic related to India.
Iran, which is still under stringent US led sanctions since 1979, has enormous potential as a regional power, given its distinctive geography, Persian pedigree, demography and vast hydro-carbon resources. It merits recall that under the regime of the Shah, Iran was a major and close US ally and its orientation was not very positive as regards India. Post-1979 and the Ayatollah Khomeni Revolution, while India’s political relationship with the Iranian clergy has been stable, there have been differences over issues such as the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) during the 1990’s – but this did not prevent the two sides from cooperating over the Taliban challenge in Afghanistan during the same period and after the 9/11 attacks in late 2001.
Irrespective of which dispensation comes to power in Delhi by end May, the stability of Afghanistan under a post-Karzai government and the orientation of Rawalpindi (GHQ of the Pakistan Army ) will have a significant bearing on India’s security. Under the circumstances, establishing a robust transport linkage with Afghanistan that bypasses Pakistan has enormous long-term strategic significance for Delhi.
In this framework, prioritizing Chabahar is imperative for Delhi, and not just in relation to Afghanistan and Central Asia. India’s maritime presence in the western sector of the Indian Ocean and the sea-lanes leading to and from the oil-rich Persian Gulf will also be enabled by a fully functional Chabahar. While this is not a zero-sum riposte to China in Gwadar, the maritime relevance of an Indian assisted and developed port in these waters will accord India greater credibility and options in relation to its west Asian interlocutors and related policies.
While China and Pakistan figure prominently on the Indian policy radar, it merits repetition that for Delhi, the two most critical neighbors who have not received sustained attention are Bangladesh and Iran. Due to its peculiar domestic political constraints, the UPA II government was unable to impart the traction required to maximize the benefits of both these bilaterals. Chabahar now provides a very positive concatenation and the new team on Raisina Hill (the seat of the Indian government) will be well-advised to prioritize an initiative that was mooted in January 2003 by a BJP-led coalition.
(C Uday Bhaskar is a Distinguished Fellow at the Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at [email protected])