The finalizing of dates for visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Iran, 22 May to 23 May 2016 has generated a good amount of enthusiasm in India. Simultaneously, it is also aimed at sending a clear signal to the international community that India is serious and means business about its intentions to play its legitimate role in the region while balancing out its friends across all spectrums of Islamic world.
Ostensibly the underlying aim of the visit is to boost Indian connectivity with the region by signing the India-Iran-Afghanistan Trilateral Agreement on Transport and Transit Corridors to facilitate trade with Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia and Europe for utilizing Chabahar port as a hub, giving boost to Indian access to Afghanistan and creating the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC). Presence of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during the signing of the agreement in Tehran signifies the importance Afghanistan attaches to the Development of Chabahar so as to end its isolation and total reliance on Pakistan for sea connectivity.
Series of events beginning with the conclusion of US-Iran Nuclear agreement in 2015 have provided a window of opportunity to re engage on economic issues and explore new avenues for cooperation for the three countries. India looking for an opportunity to establish its foothold moved at a considerable pace through high level bilateral visits involving three prominent Cabinet Ministers and sealing bilateral agreements for stake in Iranian gas field Farzad B, committing US $ 150 million for development of Phase I of Chabahar port and explore laying of rail network from Chabahar to Zahedan and onward connectivity to Zeranj-Delaram road. India also committed to clearing the Iranian dues for oil imports totalling US $ 5.6 billion.
The significance of visit has to be seen beyond connectivity to Afghanistan, setting up of International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and enhancing Indo-Iran bilateral relations.
There are a few immediate takeaways from establishing Indian footprints in the region; most significant being India getting a foothold into the Strait of Hormuz and onwards to Persian Gulf and check the expanding Chinese designs in the region which it is aiming to achieve through development of Gwadar port and setting up of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPC) besides expanding its economic relations with Iran. As per Pakistan’s Commerce Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan it envisages Gwadar as a bridge between Central Asia, Middle East and South East Asia. However development of Chabahar with shorter and more reliable links to Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan will facilitate faster trade to South East Asia in comparison to Gwadar.
Iran has been waiting for an opportunity to play a significant role in the region and specially in Afghanistan, which is its immediate neighbour to the East and shares approximately 930 kilometres long border with considerable influence on Afghanistan’s Shia population. Earlier Iran could not play an active role in the region due to US direct influence on Afghanistan and imposition of sanctions for trade and transit. Iran was also kept out of all peace negotiations with Taliban, last one being the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QGC) Forum – comprised of USA, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, although China with just 76 kilometres of border through Wakhan Corridor with Afghanistan and with hardly any leverage with Taliban was included at the behest of Pakistan.
Near failure of talks due to Pakistan’s unwillingness to apply pressure on Taliban and Haqqani network and bring about any apparent change in ground situation in Afghanistan forced President Ghani to show his frustration with Pakistan and look for suitable options for a peaceful solution to its problems. Similar opinion was also expressed by USA State Department which stated, “We have consistently expressed our concerns at the highest level of the government of Pakistan about their continued tolerance for Afghan Taliban groups such as the Haqqani Network operating from Pakistani soil.” US frustration with Pakistan has become more profound with its Congress voting to increase restrictions on Pakistan and blocking immediate US $ 450 million in aid unless it meets certain conditions.
Iran therefore is a suitable and willing player to take an active role in bringing about stability in Afghanistan keeping in view its expanding ambitions to play a hands-on role in geo politics of the region, post removal of sanctions. With USA having expressed frustration with Pakistan due to its promoting proxies in Taliban and Haqqani network, it is likely to encourage an engagement between Iran and Afghanistan to the advantage of India. Afghan President looking for relevance in his country is likely to encourage Iran’s participation so as to bring a semblance of peace in the region.
Beyond expanding its footprints in its immediate neighbourhood, Iran is also looking for economic renaissance having been isolated for close to a decade. Chabahar provides it an opportunity to expand southwards since the development of the port will ease its reliance on exporting oil through Strait of Hormuz which has seen continued tensions due to changing dynamics of intra religious conflicts and hostilities with its immediate neighbours in the Gulf.
Iran is out to challenge Saudi hegemony and its brand of Islam. The recent instability in Arab world and Middle East is an outcome of this rivalry which is unlikely to abate in the near future. Any opportunity to economically consolidate its position and come out of isolation will be lapped up by Iran at the first opportunity.
India during Iran’s years of isolation continued to engage with it deftly through trade and diplomatic engagement. In fact, Iran has been India’s second largest supplier of oil and gas. India did not miss the opportunity to consolidate this relationship with Iran as soon as sanctions were lifted so as to secure its interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Alongside India has also maintained a very mature engagement with other countries of Islamic world notably Saudi Arabia and UAE. It would be in India’s continued interest to maintain the momentum with respect to development of Chabahar and secure its strategic interests.
Shurajit Roy www.indianexpress.com
Indrani Bagchi www.timesofindia.com
Chidanand Rajghatta www.timesofindia.com
Monika Chansoria The Politics Behind Securing China Pakistan Economic Corridor www.claws.in/
Tim Craig www.washingtonpost.com
Well articulated viewpoint in the evolving landscape affecting Af-Pak and gulf region.India must speed up the engagement to check expanding Chinese presence.
A well written article