Chabahar Port: Will India Cave in Under the US Threat?

The recent American warning by America to India, to keep-off the Chabahar Port of Iran, the US has once again shown the mismatch between its words and actions. In addition by issuing this warning it also wants to be seen as Uncle Sam of the world, telling everyone what to do and what not to do

By Shankar Kumar

Opinion

While constantly interfering in India’s domestic issues, including its religious affairs and electoral process, the US has now warned New Delhi of facing sanctions if it enters in to a deal with Iran on the Chabahar Port, triggering concern among the country’s diplomatic and strategic community about the US’s unpredictability and its inveterate attitude to keep itself above all, irrespective of the fact that its ‘might is right’ approach is seen with disdain by even its staunchest allies.

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Keeping its long-term plan for Afghanistan and Central Asia high on its strategic calculus, India on May 13, 2024 signed a 10-years contract with Iran for the operation of a Shahid Beheshti terminal at Chabahar’s Port. India Ports Global Ltd (IPGL) and Iran’s Port and Maritime Organisation (PMO), signed the contract, enabling New Delhi to have management and control of a port in another country, for the first time.

The Shahid Beheshti Terminal will serve twin purposes for India: First, it will facilitate crucial connectivity for India with Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the larger Eurasian region, Second, it will offer an alternative route to the traditional Silk Road through China.

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But, instead of backing India for its efforts to turn Chabahar into a trading hub and making it a conduit for improving links with resource-rich Central Asia and Afghanistan, the US has threatened to impose sanctions on India if it will have business deals with Iran.

The US warning triggered concern among the country’s diplomatic and strategic community about the US’s unpredictability and its inveterate attitude to keep itself above all, irrespective of the fact that its ‘might is right’ approach is seen with disdain by even its staunchest allies

“Any entity, anyone considering business deals with Iran, they need to be aware of the potential risks that they are opening themselves up to and the potential risk of sanctions,” US State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel said at a press briefing on May 13.

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India’s bewilderment  

India has so far not issued any statement in response to the US’s warning, but the development has shocked the country’s diplomatic experts. Even External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar could not hide his exasperation at US’s U-turn on the Chabahar Port.

“They (the US) have not done so in the past. If you look at the US’s own attitude towards the port in Chabahar, the US has been appreciative of the fact that Chabahar has a larger relevance…We will work at it,” Jaishankar said.  He added that, “I think it is a question of communicating, convincing and getting people to understand that this is actually for everyone’s benefit. I do not think people should take a narrow view of it.”

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Kanwal Sibal, former Foreign Secretary said in his post on social media platform, X: “Earlier US had excluded Chabahar from sanctions as a desirable alternative route to Afghanistan. The US handed over Afghanistan to the Taliban. Why publicly threaten sanctions? Crude diplomacy. Could have said the US is in touch with India on this issue and leave it at that. Will just put our backs up.”

The ex-Foreign Secretary refers to November 2018, when the US, under President Donald Trump, had exempted India from certain sanctions for the development of the Chabahar port. The decision to exclude India from sanctions was taken as the US considered the Chabahar port as an entity of high strategic importance for the development of Afghanistan. In the present circumstances, however, the US under President Joe Biden does not think so.

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Remember, the US was heavily criticised by its lawmakers and strategic affairs experts for the hasty withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in August 2021. Even the US State Department’s ‘Afghanistan After Action Review’ report released in June 2023 disapproved of the Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations’ decisions to pull all US troops from Afghanistan.

The Shahid Beheshti Terminal will serve twin purposes for India: First, it will facilitate crucial connectivity for India with Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the larger Eurasian region, Second, it will offer an alternative route to the traditional Silk Road through China

“The decision of both President Trump and President Biden to end the US military mission in Afghanistan had serious consequences for the viability of the Afghan government and its security,” the unclassified report of the US State Department said.  For the US, Afghanistan has served as a crude reminder of its inept handling of various friction points in the world.

Therefore, at the time when the US is sharing an itchy relationship with Iran and views the Taliban in Afghanistan as threat to neighbouring countries as well as America, the Biden administration wants that India should scupper the deal with Tehran over the Shahid Beheshti terminal, which is a part of the larger Chabahar Port, Iran’s only oceanic port which lies in the Middle Eastern country’s Sistan-Baluchistan province.

India’s challenge

India’s involvement with the Chabahar Port began in 2002, when Iran’s then National Security Advisor Hassan Rouhani held discussions with India’s then National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra.

The following year, when Iranian President Muhammad Khatami paid a state visit to India, he signed a roadmap of strategic cooperation, including development of Chabahar Port, with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

India has so far not issued any statement in response to the US’s warning, but the development has shocked the country’s diplomatic experts. Even External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar could not hide his exasperation at US’s U-turn on the Chabahar Port

In India’s strategic calculus, the importance of the Chabahar Port, in fact, emerged after China began to develop the Gwadar Port in Pakistan as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

To counter it, India invested in planning and strategy to make Chabahar Port a reality and in May 2016, India, Iran and Afghanistan signed an agreement for the establishment of the International Transport and Transit Corridor.

After signing this agreement, Indian engineers worked at a rapid pace towards developing the first phase of the Shahid Beheshti Terminal in cooperation with Iran. Nearly one-and-half-year after, Indian company, India Ports Global Limited (IPGL) took over the operations of the Chabahar Port on December 24, 2018.

Given that the Chabahar Port is an important link to the ambitious International North-South Transport Corridor, a 7,200 kms long sea-rail-road transport corridor which will connect Mumbai with Eurasia and Central Asia, New Delhi offered $250 million to develop the port. The IPGL has also committed to spend $120 million to the port project. Besides, India has supplied six mobile harbour cranes and other equipment valued at $25 million to strengthen facilities at the port.

In 2020, when Covid-19 pandemic wrecked the world and poverty-ridden Afghanistan was struggling to survive, the Chabahar Port turned out to be a much needed conduit for New Delhi to supply humanitarian aid to the land locked country. It shipped 75,000 MT of wheat as humanitarian food assistance to Afghanistan in 2020, showing the port’s utility in helping the landlocked country out of its immediate crisis.

Iranian President Muhammad Khatami during his state visit to India in 2003, signed a roadmap of strategic cooperation, including development of Chabahar Port, with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Located strategically near the Strait of Hormuz, the Chabahar Port will add to India’s ambition to become a hub of supply chain. As it is all set to become a $5 trillion economy very soon, the Chabahar Port has potential to help the country in diversifying supply chains to the Middle East region and across Eurasia.

Experts say by 2030, India will have potential to export $1 trillion. In this background, when India is busy giving shape to its dream of becoming a key hub of economic activity, the US has threatened to wipe out its efforts to become a third economic power.

This is a challenge, but experts feel India will have to navigate through Americans’ whims like it did in the case of purchase of five units of the S-400 air defence missile system from Russia despite warning from the US that proceeding with the contract could lead to American sanctions under the CAATSA.

–The writer is a senior journalist with wide experience in covering international affairs. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda