Time for India to play its diplomatic cards cautiously and prudently.
Easing of sanctions against Iran by the Western powers coupled with the drawdown of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces from Afghanistan has prompted India to speed up its development plans of the Chabahar Port. It is an opportunity for India, which has so far been denied direct overland link to Afghanistan by Pakistan, to take up the development of Chabahar Port with all sincerity and commitment.
Further, there is another concern for India. It is China’s String of Pearls in the Indian Ocean and more particularly its presence in the Gwadar Port in Pakistan. Taking advantage of India’s slackness in developing Chabahar Port, China had also offered investment of about $78 million way back in July 2013 to upgrade this deep sea port. Beijing has signed an agreement with Pakistan for a multi-billion dollar LNG pipeline and terminal. The same would be extended from Gwadar to Iran for gas import when sanctions on Tehran are lifted. China sees the prospects of linking Gwadar to Xinjiang roping in central Asian republics.
Chabahar Port was part of a plan to develop infrastructure in eastern Iran for many years. It was put on hold in 1984 and was revived in 2002 with India assuring assistance. But as US mounted pressure on India and mounted efforts to toughen international sanctions against Iran, India practically ceased its construction works at Chabahar Port. However, when a Chinese state-owned company took over the administration of the Gwadar Port from a Singaporean firm in 2012, India resumed its work at Chabahar in the same year with partners from about 12 countries from central Asia, Gulf and Europe. Apart from $100 million investment, Chabahar, New Delhi has already completed a 200 km road from Iran’s border town Zaranj to Delaram in Afghanistan. It defied US objections to transport 100,000 tonne wheat to Afghanistan through Chabahar Port.
After the new government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office, India in October last year decided to invest $85.21 million in developing the port. Apart from this it also decided to invest an annual revenue expenditure of $22.95 million to support the efforts.
But India needs to tackle the geopolitics in the region with a view to go ahead with its Chabahar plans. Following the agreement between P5+1 (P5+1 is a group of six world powers which in 2006 joined the diplomatic efforts with Iran with regard to its nuclear program) and Iran there are only limited easing of trade restrictions on strategic items like petrochemical products, aircraft parts and precious metals accounting for $7 billion of trade over six months, subject to Tehran’s implementation of its assurances. Even after withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan, US ambition in the region has not yet faded away. New Delhi, therefore, faces the challenge of cleverly playing its diplomatic cards to win US confidence. Washington had earlier pressurised Musharraf regime in Pakistan to favour a Singaporean firm over the Chinese in operating the docks at the Gwadar Port. But later the Singaporean firm backed out paving the way for the Chinese.
However, Washington is not pleased with the growing Chinese presence in the region and its ambition to play an important role in Afghanistan. Also US have no option but to see a more proactive Indian involvement but at the same time it would not like Iran gaining importance in the region. India also needs to strengthen its cooperation with Russia which is interested to play an effective role in Afghanistan.
Tehran feels the necessity of having a deep sea port at Chabahar as its Bandar Abbas Port on the Strait of Hormuz, though strategically located, is unable to handle high traffic load. Bandar Abbas which handles 85 per cent of Iran’s seaborne trade can only receive 100,000 tonne cargo ships. As most shipping is conducted through 250,000 cargo vessels, the cargo are first offloaded in UAE port and then sent in smaller ships to dock in Bandar Abbas. This results in Tehran’s outgo of hundreds of millions of dollars to United Arab Emirates (UAE). Tehran also faces the possibility of UAE closure of this facility in case of a conflict between Iran and the UAE or Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and their western allies. Iran is also conscious of the presence of US naval patrol in the area.
Similarly, Pakistan is interested in developing Gwadar as Karachi Port is already heavily loaded with serious congestion from commercial fishing, civil and military shipping. It also fears that Indian Navy may target Karachi port in case of a conflict. China has stepped in to gain advantage in the Indian Ocean. The distance between Chabahar and Gwadar is only 72 km. Both these ports with appropriately planned road and rail connectivity can offer trade facilities to landlocked central Asian countries and even extend the facilities to Gulf countries, Russia and Europe.
But regarding implementation of the works, Chabahar stands at a more advantage position than that in Gwadar. Gwadar is among the worst under developed districts in Pakistan. The local Baluchis are up in arms against this mega projects and this has led to the killings of Chinese engineers. The Balochistan National Party-Mengal, Baloch National Front, Baloch Republican Party and militant organisations like Balochistan Liberation Front, Balochistan Liberation Army and Balochistan Republican Army are among those who oppose the deal with China. This situation has delayed the work at Gwadar project.
Comparatively the Chabahar project is more or less hassle-free. The proposed road and rail link bypasses Pakistan and connects with Afghanistan. However its success will depend on the security situation in Sistan-Balochistan province where it is located and subsequently in the rail and road links in Afghanistan that connects to central Asia. However, Iran has been successful in capping any possible insurgency in Sistan-Balochistan.
However, India stands to benefit much from the Chabahar project, not only in terms of its trade connectivity with Afghanistan, central Asia and beyond but also in terms of easier access to oil and gas in the region. India and Iran has also planned to establish direct shipping between Chabahar and Mumbai and Kandla. The proposed North-South and East-West corridors and rail links will further facilitate trade. Finally, India should take up the Chabahar project with utmost sincerity and commitment and wisely play its cards in the geopolitics in the region.
Ashok B Sharma (The writer is a senior journalist)