Iran: A port of call for India

New Delhi, Delhi, IndiaWritten By: Syed Ata HasnainUpdated: Jan 05, 2019, 09:44 AM IST
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A handout picture provided by the office of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on December 3, 2017 shows a ship bearing various flags parked at Chabahar (Shahid Beheshti) Port during the inauguraition of the first phase in the southern Iranian coastal city of Chabahar. Photograph:(AFP)

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The Indian firm India Ports Global Limited has formally taken over operations at the Shahid Beheshti port in Chabahar.

Chabahar is back in the news after a hiatus of about two years. The contexts of its importance are several but the first one in the current milieu is the fact that despite President Donald Trump’s avowed sanctions on everything related to Iran, India’s Chabahar-based relationship with Tehran has received a waiver. That puts on course the fructification of efforts which commenced many summers ago but got an impetus with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tehran in May 2016, leading to the signing of the trilateral tripartite agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan.

The US provided an “exception” from certain sanctions, to the Iranian port of Chabahar that India has developed and used for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. This exemption is in addition to temporary freedom from sanctions that the US announced for India and seven major importers of Iranian crude oil.

Why is Chabahar strategically important, for India, the US, Iran and Afghanistan? That will answer many questions. It starts with the fact that its geostrategic location, outside the Persian Gulf and yet on the Iranian coastline, puts it slightly out of harm’s way in the event of the Straits of Hormuz being forcibly closed; although, it is well appreciated that such a closure will no doubt presuppose an adverse effect on all of Iran’s port facilities.

To access Central Asia, often referred to as the heart of Asia, and Afghanistan, there are only two routes from the Indian Ocean. The first is from Pakistan’s Gwadar or Karachi ports and the second is from Chabahar which lies on the southeastern coast of Iran in the Sistan-Baluchistan province. Why the US agreed to waive sanctions for activities connected with the development of the port is simply because India is the nation providing alternatives for establishing communication arteries to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan.

For 17 years, the US has fought in Afghanistan and depended on a single artery for its logistics; through Karachi and Pakistan-Baluchistan into Afghan territory. Due to its animosity with Iran, the clearly viable alternative via Chabahar through Iranian territory, to West Afghanistan could not be exploited. The lack of development of Chabahar placed Afghanistan in a predicament because of its reliance on Karachi with all strings in the hands of none-too-friendly Pakistan.

India’s stakes in Afghanistan being high, the realization perhaps came late that Chabahar had serious transformational strategic potential to bypass Pakistan. Once India demonstrated its deep interest and the tripartite agreement with Iran and Afghanistan was signed in mid-2016, the movement of a consignment of wheat from Kandla port in Gujarat to Kabul via Chabahar went through smoothly; that experiment spurred further movement on Chabahar.

With portents of conflict termination in Afghanistan, the US too realised the important role India could play at this stage, such that all eggs were not in Pakistan’s basket. Otherwise all Pakistan needed to do in order to bring down the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) was to establish a blockade from Karachi and the landlocked state of Afghanistan would have few options.

The tripartite agreement resolved that problem and increased India’s significance in Afghanistan. With India’s access via Chabahar, the viability of maintaining Afghanistan as a state under current dispensation, with minimal US presence, exponentially increases and there is considerable risk reduction. The joint Indian and US strategic interests in Afghanistan aim at the dilution of Pakistani influence and capability.

For the US the option of India in control is far more positive than leaving this to the stranglehold of China, Russia and Pakistan with the latter continuing to improve relations with Iran. For the Afghan NUG, this is as blissful a situation as it can expect with reduction of dependence on Pakistan and an avenue open to trade and assistance from India.

The Indian firm India Ports Global Limited has formally taken over operations at the Shahid Beheshti port in Chabahar. The routes for trade and transit corridors between the three countries have been finalised but this will remain work in progress as subsequent infrastructure caters for railway connectivity and eventual linkage to the INSTC.

While India has successfully completed a major geostrategic venture on one flank of the Persian Gulf, it needs to be mindful of the fact that its interests are divided on both sides of the Gulf. That is where the last few years of straddling diplomacy, which the Ministry of External Affairs has done with a fair degree of aplomb, will hopefully pay a dividend. India remains one of those unique countries which the Prime Minister of Israel and the President of Iran visited within two weeks of each other.

India has long and extremely important relationships with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait which are as strategic as any of its relationships. The world of multilateralism is a sphere in which India is getting increasingly competent. That is why it needs to believe that Chabahar is the opening to the long-awaited strategic and civilisational relationship with Iran which need not be at the cost of the same which must be pursued with the Arab Gulf countries with equal vigour. 2018 was a good year for this, 2019 promises to be better.

(This article was originally published on DNA. Read the original article)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)