A young Iranian diplomat interacting with a think tank at New Delhi recently was of the view that though India’s interest in the project to develop the Chabahar Port jointly with Iran went back many years, the pace at which India was moving on the issue was rather too slow. He pointed out that this was unfortunately so despite the fact that even when Iran was under sanctions, the US had no objections to Indian involvement in developing Chabahar. There is merit in what he says notwithstanding the fact that decision making goes generally into limbo closer to general elections in India and it is only the Modi government that has refocused attention onto the IOR which naturally includes Chabahar.
Chabahar is just 72 kilometers west of Gwadar, which once fully developed would give India a strategic advantage negating the need to keep negotiating the land route through Pakistan; providing direct access to Afghanistan and CAR.
Chabahar is central to India’s connectivity to Central Asia. Its importance is doubly important to India for connectivity with Afghanistan and beyond because of the dog in the manger attitude of Pakistan which appears getting worse with Chinese support and US-NATO thin out from Afghanistan. India’s willingness to join the Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement too was cold shouldered by Pakistan.
Indian participation in development of Chabahar port provides India connectivity with Afghanistan and further into Central Asia linking up with the International North South Transit Corridor (INSTC), which would link India with Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and other Central Asian countries. Chabahar is to be linked by rail to Zahedan on the Afghan border. Chabahar is just 72 kilometers west of Gwadar, which once fully developed would give India a strategic advantage negating the need to keep negotiating the land route through Pakistan; providing direct access to Afghanistan and CAR. Afghanistan too then would have alternative to being exclusively dependent on Pakistani ports of Karachi and Gwadar. The INSTC too would optimize Chahabar for all the land-locked countries in the region.
The rail link from Chahabar to Afghanistan will enhance opportunities for India in terms of trade and help economic development of Afghanistan.
The recent two day visit to Iran by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj coincided with Iran inviting foreign companies for joint ventures in many of its crucial sectors including oil and gas. When Prime Minister Modi had met Iranian Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani in Ufa, Russia last year, both leaders spoke about increasing Indian investments in Iran.
India has offered to invest up to $20 billion in oil, petrochemicals and fertilizer projects in joint ventures with Iran…
On his first visit to India after the nuclear agreement freed Iran from global sanctions, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had held discussions on three major issues: the ISIS threat; energy investments, and; development of Chabahar port. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had conveyed India’s commitment to work with Iran for development of the Chabahar port that would have far reaching benefit, not only for the people of India and Iran, but also for Afghanistan and the entire Central Asia region. Zarif had stated Iran considered India its “strategic partner and cannot forget the support India extended to Iran during its difficult times”. India imports close to 12 million tons of crude from Iran and it is looking at increasing the oil import from the country.
Oil Minister Dharmendra Pradhan also paid a two-day visit to Tehran from April 9 this year, during which he discussed with his Iranian counterpart the repayment of nearly $6.5 billion that Indian refiners owe to Iran. The visit by Sushma Swaraj to Iran, soon after PM Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, was to boost ties with focus on raising India’s oil imports and enhancing trade. Iran is an important country for India for its energy security as well as to get access to oil and gas-rich Central Asian nations.
India has offered to invest up to $20 billion in oil, petrochemicals and fertilizer projects in joint ventures with Iran if Tehran provides land and cheap gas, albeit an agreement for rights to develop Farzad-B gas field in the Persian Gulf discovered by state run ONGC Videsh is yet to be signed. Sushma Swaraj held extensive talks with her Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif to review bilateral relations and enhancing ties in energy, trade and banking sectors. She also called on President Hassan Rouhani. A major takeaway of her visit was India and Iran getting closer to formalizing Indian investments in Chabahar port, which had also been discussed during the Iranian Foreign Minister’s visit to India last year. India has finalized a contract for development of Chabahar Port and approved credit of US $ 150 million to Iran.
The involvement of Pakistani military undertaking terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan has been reported periodically by Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security.
For the project to fructify, a tripartite agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan is the key. The completed project would offset the Chinese development of Gwadar port to some extent but the latter is moving at fast pace, simultaneous to development of the CPEC. However, the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan will remain a concern, especially with respect to any movement of goods within Afghan territory. Movement north of the proposed rail line from Chahabar to Zahedan into Afghanistan implies traversing the Helmand region which is Taliban stronghold. This also needs to be viewed with the fact that Pakistani regulars are covertly operating along with Taliban in major way.
The involvement of Pakistani military undertaking terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan has been reported periodically by Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security. Recent reports that Afghan security forces have killed Nida Mohammad, a Pakistan General who fought along with the Taliban in northern Afghanistan indicates that Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan is perhaps at par, if not more, of the weak division supporting Taliban during the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. Nadim was reportedly head of Taliban’s military branch for the Provinces of Faryab, Badghis, Sar-e-Pul and Ghor.
Not very long ago, Shirin Mazari, erstwhile DG of Pakistan’s Institute of Strategic Studies, had proposed that the Taliban (with obvious Pakistani support) should aim to sally west beyond the Afghan border.
It may be recalled that Shirin Mazari, when DG, Institute of Strategic Studies and Lt Gen Javed Hassan, Commandant, National Defence College, Pakistan both propagated low intensity conflict, guerilla warfare, indirect intervention and use of terror as more viable options of modern day war during the Regional Conference on Security held in Bangladesh under aegis courtesy Bangladesh Institute of Strategic Studies way back in 2001.
Pakistan will do her level best to disrupt trade between India and Afghanistan via Chabahar. In so doing, Pakistan will have China’s tacit blessings…
So, it can be taken for granted that Pakistan will do her level best to disrupt trade between India and Afghanistan via Chabahar. In so doing, Pakistan will have China’s tacit blessings, with China undercutting India from the background. Significantly, China and Iran have agreed on trade deals to the tune of US$ 600 billion. Therefore, it would be prudent to also examine the alternate route through Iranian territory to Herat in Afghanistan.
The Iranian government funded 123 km surfaced road to Herat (Afghanistan) from Dogharoun in Iran was inaugurated in January 2007. In 2002, US$ 25 million was allocated for construction of a railway from Torbat-e-Heidarieh to Herat (189 kms), more finance contemplated from international aid and the Iranian Commission for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan. Construction was planned in four lots, two each in Iran and Afghanistan. During a subsequent Iran-Afghanistan agreement in 2006, Iran committed meeting 60% of the project costs. The railway line will run 86.8 km in Iran. The single-track railway will form an extension of the Iranian network; 1435 mm standard gauge. Work began in 2006 but progress is slow including due security concerns. Two police officers and two Taliban cadres were killed in an armed clash at a checkpoint along the railway line in the Ghoryan district in July 2009. According to reports, this railway line is still not completed. This could be an alternate route for India-Afghanistan trade if movement of goods north of Zahedan becomes difficult because of violence and instability.
The Modi government, therefore, would need to move faster on the Chabahar project in conjunction Iran and Afghanistan along. Any amount of additional investment would be to India’s strategic advantage. In addition to the issues mentioned above, there is urgent need for India-Iran-Afghanistan institutionalized tripartite dialogue on addressing terrorism emanating from Pakistan, since all three countries are affected and Pakistan is unlikely to change her policy of exporting terror in the foreseeable future. The forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Modi to Iran should provide the necessary impetus.