Chabahar is definitely an opportunity for Iran, Afghanistan and India. It’s also an opening to the sea for the land locked countries of Central Asia. Located close to Gwadar, it provides India an avenue to extend its reach and contest the emergence of China as the predominant influence in the region. In terms of capacity, the port is much smaller in design as compared to Gwadar, but with investments being more limited its viability is definitely greater. For India, it provides a routing to Afghanistan without having to pass through Pakistan, a linkage that the latter has always denied and is unlikely to provide in the foreseeable future. The author provides an evaluation of the project both from the strategic and also the economic viewpoint.
CHABAHAR PORT: STRATEGIC NECESSITY FOR INDIA
Chabahar port is located in Iran next to the Gulf of Oman and at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz. It is the only Iranian port with direct access to the Indian Ocean. Located in close proximity to Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, it has been termed as the Golden Gate to these landlocked countries. In terms of distance Chabahar is 700 km away from the capital of Baluchistan province, 950 km away from Milak, the closest city of Afghanistan and 1827 Km from Turkmenistan border. In terms of sea distances the Pakistani port of Gwadar is 84 km, Dubai is 565 Km, Karachi is 728 Km, and Mumbai is 1349 Km from Chabahar.
Iran- India partnership
During the 1990s India along with Iran and Russia, collaborated in backing the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against the Taliban. The Taliban continues to be supported by Pakistan, even now. It was at this time that Iran invited India to develop the Chabahar port to obtain a land access into Afghanistan. This was followed by a trilateral agreement in 1997 with Turkmenistan to expand trade into Central Asia followed by another agreement with Russia to provide seamless transport between India and Europe via an International North South transport Corridor.
The attacks on the twin towers in New York and other places in the United States on 11 September 2001, led to the American Armed Forces along with several countries moving into Afghanistan. At this stage, the three countries India, Iran and Afghanistan got together in January 2003 agreeing on a joint development of transportation links to Afghanistan. India agreed to expand the Chabahar port and to lay a railway track between Chabahar and Zaranj.
India has spent 134 million US Dollars during 2005 to 2009 to construct a road from Delaram in Afghanistan to Zaranj at the Iran Afghanistan border. Iran has completed first phase of the Chabahar port at a cost of 340 million US Dollars. Connectivity from Chabahar through Milak, Zaranj and Delaram has been established to the Garland road in Afghanistan which connects the major Afghan cities Herat, Kandhar, Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. In March 2012, ships from India docked at Chabahar carrying 100,000 tons of wheat under humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. However, without further development of the port the roads remained unutilised. There were issues of American pressures which slowed down development work. In 2012, during the Non Aligned Meet at Tehran, the three countries, Afghanistan, Iran and India discussed the issue resulting in some progress. The agreements were finally signed in May 2016.
In May 2016, India signed a series of 12 Memorandums of Understanding pertaining to the port of Chabahar. The most important one pertains to the deal between Iran and India which permits India to develop and operate two berths of the Chabahar port for 10 years. This will be done by India Ports Global, a Joint Venture between Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust and Kandla Port Trust in partnership with Iran’s Aria Banader. The Company has guaranteed handling of 30,000 Twenty Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) ships on completion of two years and eventually reaches a figure of 2,50,000 TEUs. The berths will be developed at a cost of 85 million US dollars. A container handling facility of 640 meters will be constructed and reconstruction of the existing 600 meters container handling capability in the second berth will be taken up. All these will be fitted with modern port handling equipment. This would result in the port handling capability of Chabahar being enhanced from 2.5 million tons to 8 million tons.
It is pertinent to note that the investment is supplemented with a 150 million dollars line of credit to Iran through the Exim Bank of India. Apart from this a Memorandum of Understanding was also signed for the financing of the planned Chabahar – Zahedan railway line as a part of the North South Transport corridor by Indian Railways construction unit – Ircon International. The offer entails providing the cost of 1.6 billion Dollars. This would enable Chabahar to be linked to Iran, Afghanistan and Russia by rail. The important issue at the moment is that the Port and Maritime Organisation of Iran has not completed the application of loan for 150 million US dollars despite reminders from the Exim Bank of India for the last nine months. This need to be expedited and the Iranian authorities are assuring that the same will be done. Viewed in the backdrop of the recent United States sanctions due to Iran recently testing a Ballistic Missile, the Iranians have stated that issue is under consideration. It is essential to note that Iranians are slow in their decision making and in the interests of both countries the application would be signed by the Iranian authorities.
As per political observer Aagam G Shah’s statement in quora.com, the reason for Indian economic and geopolitical involvement with Iran is to counter the influence of China’s string of pearls strategy. The advantages that would accrue are as under:-
· It will provide a land route to Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia and Russia. In doing so it will make way for India to bypass Pakistan in transporting goods to Afghanistan using a sea land route. At present Pakistan does not allow India to transport goods through its territory to Afghanistan.
· It would give momentum to the International North-South transport corridor of which both are initial signatories. It entails the ship, rail and road routes for moving freight between India, Russia, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Europe.
· It would counter the Chinese presence in the Arabian Sea through the support to Pakistan in developing Gwadar port. Further it would enable our shipping vessels to be provided security if the need arises in the region.
· All these leads to the development of the region and with iron ore deposits available it could result in a steel plant being opened in this region. This would see the region developing economically apart from being a communication hub.
The other important issue is the Japanese interest in developing Chabahar. Japan’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs Mr Kentaro Sonoura during a visit to Afghanistan in January 2017, pledged to develop access for Chabahar. Japan’s interest in Chabahar is important to India as her assistance would ensure time bound completion of the port leading to timely optimization of facilities. Japan is an important strategic partner of India and her support would be essential in countering Chinese influence in Gwadar.
Overall India is playing an important strategic role in Afghanistan. Currently India is training the Afghan National Army and providing limited military equipment. We are undertaking Capacity Development for which material both civil and military needs to reach Afghanistan. Chabahar provides connectivity and this in turn provides multiple strategic options. Apart from move of equipment we could plan training exercises initially at a small scale and later at a larger scale between the two Armies. Such training schemes would benefit us and at the same time make Pakistan shaky about the strategic depth as we would now be carrying out a manoeuvre which operationally would be a turning movement by India against Pakistan.
Undoubtedly development of the port of Chabahar would be a game changer for the region. Apart from countering the Chinese port of Gwadar, the route would possibly eliminate the term ‘strategic depth’ from the lexicon of the Pakistan Armed Forces. It is hoped that the Iranian Government completes the application for the $ 150 million dollars loan and forwards it to the Exim Bank of India. Thereafter, Indians can move expeditiously. India would be able to extend its reach as a regional power, too.
It is extremely important that India connects on a direct route to Afghanistan without having to go through Pakistan to exercise its strategic options. Such a routing also provides a passage to the Central Asian Republics. Chabahar provides us this great opportunity and we must leave no stone unturned to turn this concept into a reality.
Maj Gen P K Chakravorty (Retd)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)