Chabahar: Key to sidestepping Pakistan
India needs to get its act together on Iran’s Chabahar Port
Iran wants India to hasten the construction of the three jetties that have been allotted to it in Chabahar so that the agreement acquires meaning. Incidentally, India’s speed of project execution does not square with Iran’s expectations. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, who will be in Amritsar on December 4 to attend the sixth edition of Heart of Asia conference, organised to explore regional solutions to stabilising war-torn Afghanistan, is expected to present Chabahar and the trilateral agreement as an option to shore up the damaged Afghan economy. India-Iran-Afghanistan had signed this transit agreement earlier in May this year.
Chabahar provides a strategic and commercial option to India to sidestep Pakistan, which has blocked India’s land access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. An all-weather port in Iran’s Baloch-Sistan province, Chabahar is barely 60 km from Pakistan’s upcoming China-funded Gwadar Port. India’s investment here gained urgency after significant Chinese investment — $46 billion — in the 2,400-km China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This corridor permanently blocks India from taking the land route to reach Afghanistan or beyond. Though still very sleepy, Chabahar’s strategic location and the contestation that could take place between countries with competing expectations could turn it into a port of intrigue. Pakistanis and Chinese are always suspicious of Indian intentions in Balochistan, and now Gwadar. Not too long ago, Pakistan had arrested an alleged RAW agent, Kulbhushan Jadhav, who operated out of Chabahar as a businessman.
About 900 km from the Adani-owned Mundra Port in Gujarat, this part of Iran has not seen any reporting in many years. Journalists were not encouraged in the past, but Iran is changing now. This writer is the first beneficiary of this new Iranian approach.
There are just two flights to Chabahar from Tehran. The aircraft of Iran Air lands in this Second World War desert strip located in the middle of nowhere — a town interestingly called Konarak. A newer airport is coming up near the port’s free zone. It’s a magnificent road from Konarak Airport that circuits the grand muddy hills with Martian features and the fishing village of Tees to the emerging port city. A few fancy five-star hotels have come up in the last few years that suggest that the town is ready for receiving business and other tourists. Earlier this month, the port had passengers from Oman — it is barely three hours away by ship. The port authority is looking for similar shipping routes. “Why can’t Indian ships just come on a friendship visit to Chabahar?” wondered a strategic expert in Tehran. The port authority, however, clarified that it would take a month or more to receive ships of a higher tonnage as dredging was still going on to make the port deeper. There are many companies from different parts of the world that are picking up industrial plots in the free zone. From India, though, there have been only enquiries. Iran sees in the development of Chabahar not only an attempt to develop its eastern part, but also an opportunity to leverage its location to earn through transhipment or through a transit economy. The full potential of Iran’s transit economy is about $100 billion, and if things move according to plans, the country could earn more profits than what it would from the export of oil and gas.
Afghan traders, who have had misgivings about the transit treaty that their country has with Pakistan, have begun to set up offices in Chabahar. They are hoping that India will fulfil its commitment that it made when PM Narendra Modi signed the trilateral agreement in May 2016. They want to believe this would lead to a resumption of trade with India. Pakistan does not allow Indian trucks to deliver goods to Afghanistan. In September 2016, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani banned Pakistani trucks from going through Afghanistan to access Central Asia till it allowed Indians trucks to enter his country.
Although the Indian Government has been hobbled by the Pakistani blockade to Afghanistan and Central Asia, it still shows ambivalence about this grand enterprise to bypass Pakistan by using Chabahar. Its concerns have, though, mounted since China has sent its naval ships to guard Gwadar Port.
It will be a strategic setback if New Delhi shows any reluctance or hesitation in going ahead with the project due to new US President’s trenchant opposition to the Iran deal. Not only would it miss an opportunity to tap the huge Central Asian market, but also lose out in integrating its Chabahar enterprise with the North-South corridor that will link India through Iran with Russia and the rest of Europe. Iran has gently conveyed to India that it will not wait endlessly for them to complete their project. “We are talking with others too” is the cold message that is repeatedly conveyed to this visitor. There is a hint that they can get the Chinese to invest here. Indians want to prevent that from happening and are seeking Japanese support to fund some of the promises that they have made.
Chabahar is also important as it can serve as a staging post for India’s soft power in this region and beyond. Nearly all the people hum Hindi songs and speak excellent Urdu. It is the beginning of the Indian subcontinent, and it shows. All these reasons and more suggest that India urgently gets its act together and grab this great opportunity to rebuild old land routes and commerce with countries of Central Asia.
(This is a redacted version of an article which appeared in the Tribune)