Chabahar: Indian strategic maneuvering

Dr Muhammad Khan

Sequel to signing of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in April 2015, India fostered its drive for completion of Iranian Port in Chabahar. The project started in 2003, but lingered on and later owing to international sanctions on Iran; India almost abandoned it until 2013. In November 2013, Pakistan handed over the Gwadar Port to Chinese Overseas Ports Holding Company Ltd (COPHCL) for further development and operationalisation. This development promoted India and it started consulting Iranian officials to re-start the construction of the port. Chabahar is located approximately 150 km from the Pakistani deep-sea port, Gwadar. In a way, its development by India was in strategic competition of Gwadar.
In a bid to start construction of the Chabahar port, India even ignored the US warnings, as Iran was still under sanction over its nuclear programme until 2015. In December 2013, Indian officials collaborated with Iranian and Afghan officials for a trilateral trade and transit agreement, with Chabahar Port as the pivot. Indeed, after its failure to get a transit trade route via Pakistan (New Delhi-Lahore-Kabul) India convinced Afghan Government to reduce its dependence on Pakistan by having an alternative route for its global and regional trade.
After Indian lobbying, Kabul felt that, “Chabahar Port could be valuable destination to Afghan businessmen to conduct their trade and commerce relations easily without facing hurdles and that, the Chabahar Port has major significance to Afghan businessmen as compare to other ports.” It is worth mentioning that, India worked on this project much earlier and even constructed a highway in Afghanistan. This Highway-Delaram–Zaranj is also called, as Route 606, has 220 km length and connects Delaram (border city of Afghanistan) to Zaranj (Capital of Nimruz province of Afghanistan). Indian Border Roads Organisation (BRO) of India has constructed this highway at the cost of 100 USDs from 2005 to 2009. The highway will be connected with Chabahar on one-side and Central Asian states on the other side.
In fact, through Iranian port, Chabahar, India gets easy access overland route to Afghanistan and Central Asia. In Afghanistan, India has made investment in the field of economy, security cooperation and social sectors to have ingress and securing its strategic and economic interests. Whereas, the CPEC impelled India to faster completion of the Chabahar Port, it is widely recognised that, India did play a key role in the brokering of nuclear deal between Iran and US, formally between P5 plus one and Iran. India has its regional ambitions and US has its global agenda including containment of China through India. Then U.S is in the process of making new allies in the Middle East. Indian strategic and economic compulsions suit U.S and surely U.S compulsions best exploited by India. Indeed, there are stakes and complementarities of both countries at regional and global level. Today, Iran has a clear leaning towards US and India, which disturbed the traditional power balance in the Middle East. The Saudi led GCC countries are upset over this US shift. On its part, India is gained even in the Arab monarchs apart from Iran. Precisely, one can say that, India has been the net beneficiary of entire developments in the larger Asian region and US has been at its back throughout.
Indian Prime Minister is visiting Tehran next week and is likely to sign a number of agreements and MoUs. Among these, Chabahar Agreement will be an agreement of strategic nature. During the visit of Indian External Affairs Minister to Tehran early this month, it was through debated at the level of foreign ministers. This will be an agreement between Iran, India and Afghanistan. Officials of these three countries have now finalised the parameters of this trilateral agreement; “Chabahar Agreement”. The agreement will “allow India access to Afghanistan via the strategically located Iranian port of Chabahar, which sits on the Gulf of Oman.”
Upon signing of the agreement, Indian goods will reach Afghanistan without having to pass through Pakistan. New Delhi is optimistic that after this agreement and finalisation of the Chabahar Port, there will be greater regional connectivity and India will have a greater say over Tehran and Kabul. Surely, through the oprationalisation of Chabahar, India and other regional countries will try down play the significance of Gwadar port. India is otherwise promoted sub-nationalism and terrorism in Balochistan to destabilize the Pakistan and to create hurdles in the completion of CPEC, the economic and strategic corridor for both Pakistan and China.
New Delhi is creating an impression that, Chabahar Agreement will “contribute to economic growth of Afghanistan and facilitate better regional connectivity, including between India and connections to Afghanistan and central Asia.” India is also likely to invest in the construction of 1380 km railway-line connecting Chabahar with Zahedan-and Mashhad. India will provide $400 million of steel rails for this railway linkage. Contours of the Chabahar Agreement were conceived in 2013 and have been debated and negotiated between Indian and Afghan officials.
Earlier, this agreement was also discussed and agreed upon between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in December 2015. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has sought massive Indian investment of $8 billion in the development of infrastructure projects and wider economic development and growth of Iran.
The Chabahar Agreement is an indirect Indian strategy of isolating Pakistan; strategically and economically. After the agreement Afghan trade and logistic through Pakistan will reduce reasonably. Iran is otherwise more biased towards India. Rather having an equation and larger understanding between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, the emerging trends are anti-Pakistan. On the part of Pakistan, there is no strategic planning among its political elites, who largely protest their corruption and ill-gotten wealth, rather the national interests, the people’s mandate. Time is running out and the national leadership must get back to its true role and take measures for safeguarding the national interest of Pakistan and in fact the future generation of Pakistan, rather two families. The Chabahar Agreement will seriously affect the implementation of CPEC and Gwadar port operationalisation.
— The writer is International Relations analyst based in Islamabad.

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