The first ever Indian shipment to Afghanistan via the Iranian port of Chabahar is a major diplomatic victory for Bharat which would open many new vistas much to the discomfort of Pakistan and China
The first ever Indian shipment to Afghanistan via the Iranian port of Chabahar, announced by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on Oct 29, is indeed a proud moment for every Indian. With close guidance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has indeed achieved a big feat.Generally, the litmus test of any diplomatic strategy is how to match one’s national interests with another’s, differing ideological stances notwithstanding. So, for India to work out a deal with Iran and Afghanistan, both claiming to be hardcore “Islamic Republics” is no small achievement. This just establishes how hollow the allegations are that the NDA Government is unable to find acceptance among the Muslim countries.
In fact, it is not often that countries across the world get to successfully sign a deal these days with the clerical regime in Iran. Even the much-hyped “Iran nuclear deal”, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as it is also known, negotiated with the World’s major powers (referred popularly as the P5+1) is now in danger barely two years after it became operational, with US President Trump criticising it. Afghanistan too is under so many pulls and pressures, most important being from India's bête noire Pakistan. So, India’s clinching the Chabahar deal must clearly be seen as a major, monumental victory for India’s foreign policy mandarins and security experts, particularly those who have worked quietly, painstakingly and doggedly for years to see it through. In many ways, Chabahar represents a milestone in Indian history, which would have been impossible without the PM’s direct interest.
Above all, the Chabahar success story highlights the importance now being given to project (and protect, in a patient and definitive way) Indian strategic interests abroad, especially in areas and places where it matters the most. This clearly signals the new keenness, decisiveness and direction being imparted at the highest policy-making levels, a much-needed imperative behind any such diplomatic/strategic success. There is no doubt that India’s Chabahar plans, which have been hanging in limbo for years, received the much-awaited high-level boost with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Iran in May 2016, leading to the landmark Trilateral agreement on Establishment of International Transport and Transit Corridor, under which Chabahar is now being operationalised.
Unfortunately, not many appreciate the outstanding nature of the deal made or visualise how significant Chabahar is for India. By and large, most observers have reduced the Indian initiative over Chabahar to a very narrow prism, viewing it as an attempt by India to assert its military interests in the region and kickstart trade with Afghanistan, Central Asia/Russia bypassing Pakistan/counter China on Gwadar and tap scarce mineral resources in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
Chabahar could offer adequate opportunities for all such adventures, and much more.
Chabahar should be seen as a signal, a symbol, a monument to Indian strategic ambitions, regional intentions and global capabilities. This becomes evident when one looks at the sustained manner and persistent push which went into negotiating the Chabahar related arrangements. It went ahead despite the open adversarial attitude towards Iran from none other than US President Trump. The timing of MEA’s announcement, just after a high profile visit by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, should be also seen as highly significant. India, in a very vivid and proud fashion, seems not just confident to address US concerns (and join hands with the US when it thinks advisable) but also, is equally strong and determined to assert itself on issues close to its own interests. This, in a way, might remind old-timers, about the close similarities to the liberation of Bangladesh and the role played, quietly and behind the scenes, by the Indian strategic establishment, with a similar solid backing from the highest decision-making levels.
The MEA Statement on the event also notes two important aspects one, a “landmark moment as it will pave the way for operationalisation of the Chabahar port as an alternate, reliable and robust connectivity with Afghanistan” and two, “It will open up new opportunities for trade and transit from and to Afghanistan and enhance trade and commerce between the three countries and the wider region”. This should not be seen as in any way suggestive of wanting to “bypass” Pakistan, as is being mentioned in comments of many experts/observers. In fact, Pakistan should see the
writing on the wall in very clear
terms, if it has not done
The issue here is of connectivity, a global watchword these days more so, for landlocked people and even beyond, on a possible global scale, if Chabahar succeeds, which it ought to. Trade and other profits will only follow; this is the new mantra which is being touted widely.
The India – Iran Joint Statement issued at the end of Prime Minister Modi’s visit in May 2016 to Iran, had also pointed this out, referring to the necessity to respond “to the needs of an increasingly interdependent world”, with a goal to “enable and encourage utilisation of the emerging opportunities to the maximum possible extent in all areas” of cooperation, emphasizing in particular connectivity and infrastructure, energy, and trade and investment. These aspects are increasingly the need of the hour, therefore, Chabahar should invigorate other regional players and their big-power allies to draw a lesson on what this region badly misses and how ideal it would be to ride piggyback on Indian moves rather than stymie them.
No doubt, there will be several nuts and bolts to be put in place still on Chabahar, but that should not be
discouraging, even at the risk of
criticism from vested quarters. The strategic nature of Chabahar should also not make Indian planners short-sighted. Just because some see it as the “only Iranian port with direct access to the ocean” or
visualize it as useful to “give momentum to the International North-South Transport Corridor” project, we must not see this as the end result; at, best, such visions can be short-term goals.
The larger picture is that Chabahar provides a well-gained platform, which must now be leveraged to look even beyond too. As Union Minister Nitin Gadkari said, during his visit to Tehran in August 2017, once Chabahar becomes operational, “there will be no looking back as it will be a gateway to golden opportunities”. Only then will Chabahar be true to its name which means Spring (and Glory) forever.
(The writer is a Delhi-based freelancer)