New Delhi: Iranian president Hassan Rouhani on Sunday inaugurated a $1 billion extension of its southeastern Chabahar port which Tehran hopes will help the country become a key transit route to land-locked Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Partnering with Iran in the port development project is India, which is hoping to use the route to bypass Pakistan and reach Afghanistan and landlocked Central Asia.
The inauguration of the port project comes some 15 years after India and Iran first formally agreed to develop the Chabahar port in January 2003, during the visit by then Iranian president Mohammed Khatami to New Delhi.
While India and Iran are signatories to the port development project, a second agreement on connectivity was also signed by India, Iran and Afghanistan. This pact allows Afghanistan to use Chahbahar port to ship its goods to markets like India, thereby reducing its dependence on Pakistan and its Karachi port. Both the port development pact and the connectivity agreement were signed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tehran in May last year.
So why is Chabahar a key project for India? Here’s a look at some of the reasons:
■ Though it was only phase one of four phase Chabahar port that Rouhani inaugurated on Sunday, it is seen as one of the most high profile projects that India is involved with that is getting online despite 15 years of delay. With Iran in the dock for its suspect nuclear programme and India keen to see its civil nuclear pact with the US tied up (the agreement was finally signed in 2008), discussions on the port development went slow. Interest in the project was rekindled in 2013 after Iran and the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany reached an interim agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme and some sanctions were lifted.
■ India can now bypass Pakistan in transporting goods to Afghanistan. For years, New Delhi has been trying to persuade Pakistan to allow it to transport goods to Afghanistan using the land route—i.e, through its soil into the landlocked country. New Delhi got Afghanistan included in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 2007 in a bid to ensure connectivity among all countries in South Asia and in the grouping was established but Pakistan did not play ball.
In 2010, when Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a connectivity pact on transit trade, it was expected that would be extended to India to allow Indian goods to pass through Pakistan. But those hopes were belied when Pakistan refused to allow Afghan trucks to come up to the Indian border at Attari, Punjab, or take back Indian goods. At present, Afghan trucks with Afghan products come up to Torkham on Afghan-Pakistan border where the goods are loaded onto Pakistan trucks that in turn come up to the India-Pakistan border at Wagah. Once the goods are offloaded, the trucks go back into Pakistan empty. In October though, India flagged off a shipment of wheat for Afghanistan through Iran’s Chabahar port—marking the operationalization of the port for the trans-shipment of goods from India to the landlocked country. This also means that Afghanistan will not need to be dependent on Pakistan’s Karachi port alone for sending its goods out to global markets.
■ The Chabahar port also will boost India’s access to Iran, the key gateway to the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that has sea, rail and road routes between India, Russia, Iran, Europe and Central Asia. Agreed upon in 2000 and ratified in 2002 by the three founding members, India, Iran and Russia, the original multimodal route—from Mumbai in India to Bandar Abbas and Bandar-e-Anzali in Iran, then across the Caspian Sea to Astrakhan, Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia—did not see much traction given sanctions on Iran. Recently, however, the INSTC project has moved forward with sanctions lifted off Tehran and the 2016 India-Iran pact on Chabahar port―which will likely be tapped as a second, or alternative, to the route via Bandar Abbas. This comes against the backdrop of China’s plans to connect to Central Asia, Europe and Africa through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
■ The Chabahar port will be beneficial to India in countering Chinese presence in the Arabian Sea. China has constructed Pakistan’s Gwadar port which is less than 400km from Chabahar by road and 100km by sea.
■ With Chabahar port being developed and operated by India, it could be used as a point from where humanitarian operations could be coordinated, should the need arise. India has a huge expatriate population based in the Gulf-West Asia region and instability there in the past has resulted in New Delhi launching evacuation exercises for thousands of its nationals as well as other countries from the region.