By Ajit Kumar Singh
Mahmoud Saikal, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the United Nations (UN), during a UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting on The Situation in Afghanistan on December 17, 2018, welcomed the United States (US) move to exempt the Chabahar Port (also known as Shahid Beheshti Port) from its sanctions on Iran. Saikal stated that “we appreciate the collaboration and flexibility of our strategic partner, the United States to work with Afghanistan, Iran and India towards exempting the port from its Sanctions”.
On November 6, 2018, the US exempted India from imposition of certain sanctions with respect to the development of Chabahar Port in Iran. A day earlier, US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo had announced that India and seven other countries could continue to import crude oil from Iran despite the sanctions on that country declaring, that the “U.S. will be granting these exemptions to China, India, Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey.”
Earlier on the same day, the US Department of Treasury stated in a Press Release that the US had fully re-imposed sanctions on the Iranian Regime. The release read,
|…On May 8, 2018, the President ceased the United States’ participation in the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. That same day, the President issued National Security Presidential Memorandum–11, instructing the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury to begin taking steps to re-impose all U.S. sanctions lifted or waived in connection with the JCPOA… As of today [November 5], all U.S. sanctions lifted or waived in connection with the JCPOA are re-imposed and in full effect…|
On January 16, 2016, after the US Secretary of State had confirmed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s verification that Iran has implemented its key nuclear-related measures described in the JCPOA, the US lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, in accordance with the JCPOA.
Significantly, on May 23, 2016, during Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narnedra Modi’s visit to Iran, Afghanistan, India, and Iran had signed the Trilateral Agreement on Establishment of International Transport and Transit Corridor (also known as the Chabahar Agreement). A meeting of transport ministers of the three countries was held in New Delhi on September 28, 2016, during which they “exchanged views on the next steps for the implementation of the trilateral agreement”. Several developments occurred thereafter.
Significantly, on October 29, 2017, the first shipment of wheat from India to Afghanistan was flagged off, to be transhipped through the Chabahar Port in Iran. The shipment was part of the commitment made by the Government of India to supply 1.1 million tonnes of wheat for the people of Afghanistan on a grant basis. The shipment reached Chabahar Port on November 1, 2017, and later reached the Afghan city of Zaranj near the Iran-Afghanistan border on November 10 via road. The shipment paved the way for the operationalisation of the Chabahar port as an alternate, reliable and robust route for Afghanistan. 2000 metric tons of pulses from India to Afghanistan have also been shipped through this Port.
Later, on December 3, 2017, the inauguration of Phase-1 of the Shahid Beheshti Port at Chabahar. The total traffic at the Port is expected to grow gradually.
On March 21, 2018, the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Indian Parliament) was informed that during Iranian President’s visit to New Delhi, India and Iran had reiterated their commitment for early and full operationalisation of the Port.
India and Iran have been in continuous contact with regard to the development of the Chabahar Port, in line with the Tehran Declaration (2001) and the New Delhi Declaration (2003). India’s Cabinet Committee on Security had approved India’s Ministry of External Affairs’ proposal regarding India’s participation in the Chabahar Port Project on October 18, 2014. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for operationalizing the Chabahar Project was signed on May 5, 2015. Later in May 2016, during PM Modi’s visit to Iran a commercial contract for the development and operation of the Chabahar Port between India Ports Global Private Ltd (IPGPL, a consortium of Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust and Kandla Port Trust) and Iran’s Arya Banader was signed. The Lok Sabha was informed on March 15, 2017, that
|…as per the contract India will construct two terminals (five berths) at Chabahar Port according to the specifications agreed under the Inter-Governmental MoU signed between India and Iran on 5 May 2015. This involves investment of an amount of nearly US Dollars 85 million for procurement of port equipment. Besides, India has agreed to provide US Dollars 150 million credit facility to Iran through Export-Import Bank of India (EXIM Bank) for Chabahar Port development.|
The contract is for the period of 10 years.
According to the Indian Government’s assessment,
|The Chabahar Port located in the Sistan-Balochistan province of Iran has provided India an alternative and reliable access route into Afghanistan utilizing India’s earlier investment in Zaranj-Delaram road built in Afghanistan, and also a reliable and more direct sea-road access route into the Central Asian Region. Chabahar Port’s location at the Arabian Sea means that it would be able to skirt any challenges posed by developments in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. The development of Chabahar port is also important because of the denial of direct land route access for transit and trade between India and Afghanistan [through Pakistan].|
Access to Afghanistan has long been a sore issue between India and Pakistan, with Islamabad denying all transit across the land route, even for humanitarian supplies. For instance, Indian PM Narendra Modi during his visit to Afghanistan in December 2015, had promised 1.7 lakh tonnes of wheat to Kabul, which was facing an acute food shortage, but Pakistan denied permission deliver the Indian consignment across Pakistani territory. Most recently, on September 17, 2018, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi reportedly stated that that there was a need to first resolve technical and strategic issues linked with transit trade in the region. Not surprisingly, the military establishment in Pakistan has always opposed the Indian role in development of Chabahar Port. A week after the signing of the trilateral agreement on May 23, 2016, former defence secretary Lt-Gen (Retd.) Asif Yasin Malik, during a workshop on May 30, 2016, stated, “The alliance between India, Afghanistan and Iran is a security threat to Pakistan”. At the same event, Lt-Gen (Retd.) Nadeem Lodhi stressed that such a “formidable bloc” in the neighbourhood has “ominous and far-reaching implications” for Pakistan. In March 2018, Major General Asif Ghafoor, Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) – the media wing of the Pakistan Armed Forces – stated, “India has been busy in fomenting unrest through terrorism using Afghan soil,” and mentioned Kulbhushan Jadhav, an alleged Indian spy currently in Pakistan’s custody, as an example. Pakistan claims that Jadhav, an Indian national, was arrested in the Pakistani Province of Balochistan on charges of terrorism and spying for India’s intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW). However, India maintains that Jadhav was kidnapped from Iran, where he had business interests after retiring from the Indian Navy.
Pakistan is also worried that the development of the Chabahar Port will undermine the importance of its Gwadar Port, which is situated at a distance of approximately 72 kilometres from Chabahar. According to a September 15, 2003, report, an unnamed Pakistani official observed,
|Pakistan is pinning huge hopes on the Gwadar Project as the transit point for goods from Russia and CARs [Central Asian Regions] bound for the Gulf and the East but Chabahar Port would inflict a huge financial setback for Pakistan.|
Chabahar has already witnessed two major terror attacks since then. On December 14, 2010, at least 41 people were killed and another 90 injured in a suicide attack outside the Imam Hussein Mosque in Chabahar. Jundallah (Soldiers of God), a Sunni militant group, that operates both in Iran and Pakistan, took responsibility for the attack. Most recently, on December 6, 2018, a suicide attack on a Police Station in Chabahar killed four persons and wounded 42. On December 8, 2018, Iran’s Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, without naming Pakistan, stated that Iran holds regional sponsors of terrorism and spy services accountable for the horrific incident. Reports now indicate that Ansar al-Furqan, a Sunni militant outfit, with close links to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), claimed responsibility for the attack.
A safe and secure Chabahar Port enormously serves the interests of India, Afghanistan and Iran. The facilities at the port as well as operational mechanism along the established transit route need to be strengthened further, and could be a critical factor in the geopolitical balance of the South-Central Asian region.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management