The 15 year long wait forthe opening of Chabahar Port, located in Sistan- Balochistan region of Iran, originally conceived in January 2003, ended on 3rd December 2017after its formal inauguration by Iranian President Hasan Rouhani in the presence of Indian Minister of State for Shipping Pon Radhakrishnan, Afghan Minister of Commerce and Industry Humayoon Rasaw and representatives from many other countries including Pakistan. The inauguration of the port significantly enhances its capacity from 2.5 million tonnes to 8 million tonnes.
The formal commissioning of Chabahar port has shown the steadfast resolve of India to extend a helping hand and its commitment towards Afghanistan and its people who have been at the receiving end of a belligerent Pakistan, which, in spite of a connectivity pact on transit trade with Afghanistan, had refused to allow transportation of Indian goods, mostly humanitarian in nature, through its territory.
The development of Chabahar port and Indian commitment to develop it earnestly began in April 2016 on the conclusion and signing of the First India-Iran-Afghanistan Trilateral Agreement on Trade and Transit, which became the legal framework for its utilisation by India.
The significance of Chabahar, besides facilitating transportation of Indian goods into Afghanistan, lies in its potential to boost bilateral trade with Iran and its being a gateway to the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTEC) which further facilitates connectivity between India and Russia, Central Asian Republics and Europe through a multi modal transport model combining sea, rail and road network.
Another significance of Chabahar is its location which is at the mouth of the Straits of Hormuz, the closest point of entry into the Persian Gulf. This is significant from the point of view of current tensions in the Middle East, including Saudi-Iranian tensions, wherein sea routes and access to Iran, currently from Bandar Abbas, could be hampered in event of blockage of sea routes.
Indian commitment to invest heavily in development of Chabahar port and allied infrastructure is very significant. During the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Iran in May 2016, India signed an agreement to equip and operate two berths in the first phase of Chabahar port development with a capital investment of US $ 85.21 million and an annual expenditure of US $ 22.95 on a ten year lease. It has now additionally committed US $ 235 million for development of Phase 2 of Chabahar, besides an additional US $ 500 million for development of a SEZ and port complex. It has also committed US $ 1.6 billion in construction of 650 km railway link from Chabahar to Zahedan which will connect to Afghanistan for onward transportation of goods by road through then connection to Zaranj-Delaram road, already constructed by India at a heavy cost.
The Inauguration of Phase 1 of Chabahar port was followed by a second meeting of Trilateral Agreement on Establishment of International Transport and Transit Corridor between India, Iran and Afghanistan. All three countries resolved to fully operationalise Chabahar port and finalise protocols relating to transport and transit, ports, custom procedures and consular affairs by convening a meeting of senior level experts from three countries and making Chabahar a hub for regional connectivity. They also commended the earlier joint efforts of the three countries, which was exhibited in October 2017 during transportation of first tranche of 110000 tonnes of wheat from India to Afghanistan through Chabahar port.
India’s engagement with Afghanistan had so far been hampered by lack of direct connectivity, in spite of both countries’ eagerness to engage with each other, primarily due to Pakistan creating impediments through its hostile anti India stand and use of proxies to sabotage every Indian initiative. Also, Afghanistan being land-locked, has so far been totally dependent on Pakistan’s ports for import of its cargo. Opening up of Chabahar will help Afghanistan to pursue an independent course for its policies on trade, minimising Pakistan’s hold over transit of Afghan goods through its territory and weaning away from importing its goods through Pakistan.
India’s Afghan policy has also been boosted by the US in its South Asia Strategy wherein it has accepted that India is a player in Afghanistan and it supports India to enhance Afghanistan’s economic connectivity by facilitating better transit. It also understands Indian challenges in getting across its goods into Afghanistan. Therefore, development of Chabahar and India playing a key role in its development has tacit US approval.
Iran is fully conscious of geo political developments in its neighbourhood. It’s President Hassan Rouhani while inaugurating the port said “regional rivalries should give way for more engagement and unity in the region. We welcome other ports in the region” pointing to Gwadar which is located barely 80 kms from Chabahar and is a critical link in China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The development of Chabahar and Iran’s active involvement should also be seen as its ability to assert itself in regional affairs, especially in relation to Afghanistan.
That Chabahar will serve as a strategic port for Indian interests is beyond doubt. Besides, it is likely to serve as a strategic port for deliveries to Afghanistan from other countries, though in the near term that appears unlikely due to rivalries being played out in the Middle-East and US-Iran relations.
It is to India’s credit that it has played a fine balancing game by engaging all the key players in the region with only its strategic interests in mind. Chabahar is one of the most high profile projects where India is currently involved. Its continued commitment to take on the challenges of adversaries in an extremely hostile environment shows Indian resolve to take on challenges head on.