Chabahar port

As the geopolitics is picking up in Afghanistan in the post US troop withdrawal, India has taken a renewed position to develop Iran’s Chabahar port which can provide Afghanistan an alternate access to the sea.

Indian move has come at a time when Iran is also looking for a second port option which can serve as a unique deep sea port located at the crossroads of global trade, commerce and energy routes.

Now Rouhani government has a change of mind about Iran’s share of Chabahar port development which can serve Tehran’s strategic interest and facilitate Afghanistan’s access to sea for trade and commerce with the help of India.

All three nations, India, Afghanistan and Iran share a common goal for stability in Afghanistan and maintaining peace and development in the whole region that can ensure long term interests of both India and Iran.

During UPA government tenure when India wanted to force Iran for making investment into the port, Tehran apparently showed reluctance to make an investment thinking it will drain out its precious foreign exchange reserves. At the same time Iran was adamant that its Bandar Abbas port will be sufficient for handling Iranian trade and commerce and therefore further investment into Chabahar may not be value for money.

At that stage China, which is creating ruffles in the region by introducing an ambitious maritime silk route project, was keen to take over the Chabahar port development to ensure its strategic interest.

Strategic connectivity

Chabahar port project located in Southeastern Iran and Bandar Abbas port  situated in the Strait of Hormuz  have again moved  to the  centre stage  of geopolitics of the region comprising Afghanistan, Iran, India, Pakistan and China in the final stages of establishing the strategic  and trade connectivity in South Asia, Central Asia and Persian Gulf region.

Iran plans to use Chabahar for transshipment to Afghanistan and Central Asia, while keeping the port of Bandar Abbas as a major hub mainly for trade with Russia and Europe. Along with Bandar Abbas, Chabahar is the Iranian entrepot on the North-South corridor.

A strategic partnership between India, Iran and Russia is also intended to establish a multi-modal transport link connecting Mumbai with St. Petersburg, providing Europe and the former Soviet republics of Central Asian region access to Asia. India has finalized a plan to build a 900 km long railway line from Bamiyan province in Afghanistan to Chabahar port. An Indian steel consortium led by Steel Authority of India Limited has landed an exploration contract in the Hajigak coal fields located in the Bamiyan province .

Occupying  a special place  in providing India’s Afghan planned silk routes consisting of Zaranj-delaram Highway, Chabahar-Iranshahr-Zahedan-Milak Road, Chabahar-Faraj-Bam Railway, Chabahar-Zaranj-Delaram Hajigak railway and Chabahar-Zahedan-Mashhad railway, this project is expected to  significantly change the economic landscape of the region as well as help diluting the Taliban ideology responsible for terrorists activities in Afghanistan.

The US president Barack Obama during his recent visit to India asked New Delhi to play a prominent role in stabilizing Afghanistan in the wake of drawdown of NATO troops and also contemplates  the withdrawal of sanctions against Iran under the Nuclear agreement that may give a further impetus  to Indian initiatives.

Elaborating further  before the US Congress, Obama said, “Why we should allow China to write the economic lines in Asia.”

China’s interest

In 2005 China had openly declared  that it wanted  to seize the World power status from US. With this aim China  has been  consistently  increasing its influence, first by setting up of an Air Defence identification Zone (ADIZ) in Asia Pacific, besides conducting  invasions and incursions in India’s north east  on the lines of Tibet and Xinjiang  and now it is fast  tightening its grip by setting up of maritime military bases from Bangladesh’s Chittagong to Cox’s Bazar, Sri Lanka’s Hambantota and Gwadar in Balochistan area of Pakistan, which aims  at controlling the Indian Ocean.  

This is a part of another great game that China plays out in encircling India and this can be considered as tough war  going on between US and China  for Asian supremacy.

It is therefore right time and a last opportunity for India to extensively construct the Chabahar port in Iran.  China is already operating Gwadar port in Southwestern Pakistan with $200 million as a part of its  so called  “String of Pearls “strategy, which could potentially service PLA Navy vessels  to counter US . But the crucial point remains whether Islamic terrorism will allow China to execute its plans to link  Gwadar with Beijing via rail and connecting the port through Karakoram highway for constructing a pipeline till Khunjerab pass boundary  of Gilgit-Baltistan and Xinjiang..

India has already much lagged behind China in pursuing its objectives in this region. It never pursued matters consistently and was instead often swayed by the decisions  of big powers like US and Russia. Resultantly Chabahar port project in Iran that was to cater to trade concerns of India vis-a-vis Afghanistan was practically  abandoned  in 1984 .

Until 2012, India ceased construction of the Chabahar port under pressure from the United States to comply with the international sanctions against Iran under suspicious Nuclear activities. However, when a Chinese state owned firm took over administration of the Gwadar port from a Singaporean company in 2012, New Delhi resumed construction of the Chabahar port though originally Chabahar port project and transit corridors involved a trilateral agreement between Iran, India and Russia.

It is therefore imperative to properly understand the geo politics of this region and India should lay down a sound policy to be implemented robustly to achieve its aims.

Pakistan’s economy is heavily dependent on that of Saudi Arabia due to substantial remittances of its diaspora working in Saudi Arabia. Besides Saudi Arabia provides Pakistan with oil and energy resources on deferred basis which is happening with the tacit understanding of US which is also financially supporting  Pakistan in a  big way.

This has a political implication in this region. Pakistan is infact in the main fold of Sunni Islam (Wahabi) while the rival Iran which is providing new India’s planned Silk Routes on its western border is under the influence of Shia Islam.

However now US is also integrating Iran’s economic  interest  by gradually easing sanctions consequent upon the assurances given by Iran under the Nuclear deal.

Shifting policy

This shift in US policy is obviously to the advantage of India’s interests in this region especially as US is also ready to give India a prominent position in Asian affairs. Indian investment in Chabahar is important for India to protect its “business and commercial interests” in the landlocked Afghanistan as Pakistan has denied India transit access to Afghanistan through its land route.

China has not  budged even an inch from its stated objectives of achieving world power status by binding the various  countries  in the  region through commercial agreements  which are the modern day tools of expansion in  this era of globalization. Chinese investments are not threatened even in the face of resistance by  powers like US. That is why China is simultaneously increasing its military might in the entire area  by establishing naval bases.

The current transition happening  in this region involves targeting of Hazaras’s population in Pakistan and Afghanistan by Sunni terrorists. Hazaras are Persian speaking people and follow Shiite Islam. Their population is concentrated in Quetta in Pakistan, Central Afghanistan where they constitute 16% to 22% of population. They are also  present in Iran and in some parts of Balochistan.

The demographic change  may ultimately benefit the Chinese influence in Gwadar which is essentially a military port in Pakistan.

China collaborated with Pakistan to develop Gwadar port with the pretext that it will counter the threats  from Indian naval forces to the port of Karachi but the paramount significance  of developing  Gwadar port was  to strategically dock Chinese  naval ships and to create its energy transport hub   that will allow the construction of a pipeline for importing  crude oil from Arab and African states. But there is a major drawback of insurgency in Balochistan against the Chinese interests  where already a number of Chinese engineers had been killed by the Baloch terror groups. And this insurgency is likely to continue almost indefinitely.   

Likewise Pakistan, China wants to encash the benefit of both Gwadar and Chabahar ports but  has to abandon  one of them  because of the direct clash of  interests between Pakistan and Iran. Chabahar port located on the Arabian Sea’s Makran coast in Sistan and Balochistan Province has free trade zone status and  Iran intends to carve out  a unified  Balochistan from the areas of  Pakistan’s Balochistan and Iran’s Balochistan but is threatened  by Jundallah-an anti-Iran terrorist group operating in Pakistan’s territory. But Balochs are up in arms against  Iranians and Chinese with the  understanding that they are depriving them of their own resources.

Iran holds the key for Afghanistan stabilization as Iran has its high  stakes and influence in non-Pashtun Afghanistan like Pakistan has its influence in Pashtun areas of Afghanistan.

However, India has a key role and benefit in developing Chabahar port. While India can currently source goods from Afghanistan through Pakistan, trade in the opposite direction isn’t allowed, leaving landlocked Afghanistan dependent on its neighbour to the east, with which it shares a lawless border region ridden with Islamist terrorist groups. Chabahar will not only provide India a shorter trade route to Afghanistan, it can also use this to import minerals from Central Asia.

Chabahar will help India to get easier access to energy-rich Central Asia and facilitate the import of minerals from Afghanistan. Indian PM Narendra Modi has declared his keenness to deepen ties with neighbours and the port is expected to play an important role in the economic reconstruction and development of Afghanistan.

As it is clear that Asia will become the axis for the world economy, Iran and India as the two great countries in the region can play an important role in this regard. Iran and India which have deep historical and cultural relations are now seeking to further expand ties in various domains and Chabahar port development can be a good beginning.