Chabahar Port: More than What Meets the Eye

India has substantial interests in West Asia, Central Asia and Eurasia, and it is important for India to pursue and protect its interests for which outreach to these regions is through cooperation with Iran. The US could also consider supporting India’s engagements with Iran, as India’s presence in this region would be a counter to Chinese belligerence

By Niranjan Marjani

Opinion

On May 13, India signed a 10-year bilateral contract with Iran for the operation of the Chabahar Port. Under the agreement signed between India Port Global Limited (IPGL) and the Ports and Maritime Organisation (PMO) of Iran, India will develop and operate the Shahid Beheshti terminal of the Chabahar Port for 10 years. This long-term agreement will replace the agreement of 2016 which required to be renewed annually.

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This deal could be considered as a major milestone for India, which has been engaged in developing the Chabahar Port and also the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that will facilitate India’s connectivity to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Eurasia through Iran.

However, this encouraging development in the India-Iran relations was followed by a tragedy. Just days after the Chabahar Port deal, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, along with the Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, was killed in a helicopter crash on May 19. Since assuming the office in 2021, Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian had worked with India to maintain stable bilateral relations amid regional and global geopolitical instability.

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While this could appear as a setback for Iran as well as the India-Iran relations, it is not likely that this tragedy would stall the progress of the Chabahar Port. Procedure to elect the next president is already announced as per Iran’s constitution. For its part, India would look to continue with this project in cooperation with the new administration in Iran.

As regards to the importance of Chabahar Port, two factors are most obvious – improved connectivity to Central Asia and countering China’s influence in the region. However, this article looks at two more factors – Afghanistan and the United States (US) – that are important from the perspective of the Chabahar Port agreement.

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Afghanistan                                                                                                                                 

The Chabahar Port agreement must not be looked in isolation as it has a strong Afghanistan angle to it. Afghanistan remains an important entity in India’s quest for expanding its footprint across Central Asia and Eurasia. Right from the inception of this project, Afghanistan, a landlocked country, had expressed interest to participate in this initiative as this project would facilitate sea-connectivity for Afghanistan.

The Chabahar Agreement could be considered as a major milestone for India, which has been engaged in developing the Chabahar Port and also the International North-South Transport Corridor, to facilitate India’s connectivity to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Eurasia through Iran

Before the Taliban-takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, India had used this route for shipments of food grains and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. During the Ashraf Ghani-regime, India had been one of the major powers to be involved in Afghanistan’s redevelopment. India actively participated in infrastructure development and capacity-building projects in Afghanistan.

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However, following the Taliban-takeover, India’s presence in Afghanistan has been subject to uncertainty. While maintaining diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, India has not recognised the Taliban regime, so far.

In recent months, there has been a visible willingness on India’s part to engage with the Taliban. This is in contrast to India’s approach during the previous Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. Barring China no other country has yet recognised the Taliban. However, various countries including India seem to have accepted the reality that the Taliban rule in Afghanistan is unlikely to change. It implies that pursuit of national interest should dictate engagements with Afghanistan irrespective of differences in ideology and irrespective of whether to accord diplomatic recognition or not.

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India is taking steps in this direction. In January this year, the Indian Embassy in the UAE invited Afghan envoy Badruddin Haqqani, a prominent Taliban leader serving as the Charge d’Affaires of Afghanistan in the UAE as a guest for the Republic Day function. Later in March, a delegation of India’s Ministry of External Affairs visited Kabul and held meetings with the senior officials of the Afghanistan administration. This delegation discussed humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and the use of the Chabahar Port by Afghan traders.

In April, the Afghanistan administration held meetings with the representatives of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to work on enhancing connectivity in the region which includes cooperation with India on the Chabahar Port. Following India’s 10-year deal, the Taliban voiced its support to this project as it could enable Afghanistan to reduce its dependence on Pakistan’s Karachi port.

Not only has the Chabahar Port generated interest among the regional powers, but these powers consider India as a partner and major stakeholder in the region, too. India needs to continue with its engagements across West and Central Asia to establish a strong foothold that would result in serving its economic and strategic interests.

The Chabahar Port agreement must not be looked in isolation as it has a strong Afghanistan angle to it, as Afghanistan remains an important entity in India’s quest for expanding its footprint across Central Asia and Eurasia

The United States

India’s 10-year deal on the Chabahar Port with Iran also has a strong perspective of taking a path independent of the US. While India and the US enjoy close ties, the past few months have witnessed discord between these two strategic partners on different issues. This discord was triggered in November last year when the US accused India of plotting assassination of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a pro-Khalistan radical and India-designated terrorist, on the US’ soil.

Another cause for discord is the United States targeting India through its US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reports. These reports have regularly unfairly flagged India as a country not allowing full religious freedom. These activities indicate direct interference in India’s internal matters. Further, recently the United States’ President Joe Biden termed India as a xenophobic country.

While these incidents are unlikely to cause any substantial damage to the India-US relations, the US’ approach is indirectly vindicating India’s preference to its own national interests that may not align with the shared India-US interests. Prior to the recent long-term Chabahar Port deal with Iran, India has been buying oil from Russia since the last two years much to the irritation of the US. With the European countries halting Russian energy imports, New Delhi stepped in to buy the Russian oil that Moscow offered at discounted prices.

The transactional nature of the US’ engagements with India is apparent as the US considers India as a close strategic partner in the wider Indo-Pacific Region, particularly in the maritime domain to counter China’s belligerence. However, in case of Afghanistan, while India is reaching out through Iran; Pakistan has been the preferred partner of the US.

India’s 10-year deal on the Chabahar Port with Iran also has a strong perspective of taking a path independent of the US. While India and the US enjoy close ties, the past few months have witnessed discord between these two strategic partners on different issues

Earlier when the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and imposed sanctions on Iran, India stopped buying the Iranian oil. However, the Chabahar Port was exempted from the sanctions. This time the US has taken a stand that there would be no exemptions and the entities dealing with Iran would face sanctions.

India has substantial interests in West Asia, Central Asia and Eurasia which may not be concomitant to the US’ interests in these regions or to the US’ partnership with India in other areas. However, it is important for India to pursue and protect its interests for which outreach to these regions is through cooperation with Iran. The US could also consider supporting India’s engagements with Iran as India’s presence in this region would be a counter to China.

India’s agreement with Iran to operate a terminal of the Chabahar Port for 10 years is major development not just for the India-Iran ties but also for strengthening India’s footprint in the region. For years, India has been working on improving its connectivity to Central Asia and Eurasia through the Chabahar Port and the INSTC.

It is imperative for India now to expedite the work on this project. In the past, delays had caused India to lose momentum to China in establishing presence in West and Central Asia. The long-term agreement of 10-years should be an incentive for India to accelerate the completion of the Chabahar Port project as well as its connectivity with the INSTC.

-The writer is an Independent Political Analyst and Researcher based in Vadodara. Follow him on X: @NiranjanMarjani