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Posted at: May 23, 2016, 1:09 AM; last updated: May 23, 2016, 1:09 AM (IST)

Lobbying for a new port of influence

Lobbying for a new port of influence
Union Ministers Nitin Gadkari & Suresh Prabhu at a high-level meeting on the Chabahar Port. PTI

A former British civil servant, the late Olaf Caroe in his seminal book, Wells of Fire, has illustrated the compelling logic of geography to merit an early development of Chabahar port. Chabahar is the geographical point where the Persian territory ends beyond the Gulf of Oman, which constituted the erstwhile frontier of India (now Pakistan). Caroe also documents the Russian great game to reach the warm water ports of Indian Ocean and how they sent their transport officials to look for a port that could best serve their interests. The Russians, probably harangued by the extreme heat of the Baluchistan plains, chose the cool and temperate Chabahar as their preferred port. Caroe writes about the visible presence of Indians in all the major and minor Gulf ports and also notes the presence of Arabs and Persians in Indian bazaars. It was impossible, according to him, to get a correct perspective of the problems of the Gulf till this view included India that stood at the centre of the Indian Ocean.  

From this standpoint, the proposed Indian investment in Chabahar and signing of the trilateral treaty will not just open up a new trade route with Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia, but it can also challenge Pakistan's influence in the Gulf region, where it is getting increased traction after China invested $46 billion to develop another Baluchi port, Gwadar, and helped lay out a 3,200-km economic corridor that links it to Kashgar in Xinxiang province. Afghanistan is being encouraged by Pakistan to trade from Gwadar as it is closer to Kabul (1,237 km) than Chabahar (1,840 km). A shorter distance to Gwadar does not build a compelling geopolitical case for Afghanistan as it perceives the Chabahar route as one that liberates their economy from the stranglehold of Pakistan. 

While the geostrategic implications of side-stepping Pakistan through the Iran's Chabahar port were well known all these years, Iran never wanted to antagonise the Pakistanis and tilt the balance of power in this region. West Asian expert Sujata Aishwarya in her latest book, India-Iran Relations, brings to the fore pertinent geostrategic reasons as to why Iran always sided with Pakistan against India during the Cold War era. Later, Iran rebalanced its relationship in this region. The invitation to India to invest in Chabahar is an outcome of this change in foreign policy.

This transformation has also been brought about by the changes that are taking place in the US and Pakistan relationship, which was has been militarily thick all these years, but has begun to betray signs of restrained hostility. Pakistan's stealthy role in fomenting trouble in Afghanistan by helping the Taliban, which has compromised US plans in this region, is just one of the reasons why the US is encouraging India and Iran to fast track their Chabahar relationship. It was in January 2003 that the three countries, India, Iran and Afghanistan sat together to discuss the possibility of transit and transport corridors to provide safe and cheaper passage for ferrying these goods. A MoU was signed to connect the Chabahar port in Iran to Afghanistan's ring-road system, that included all of its key cities like Herat, Kandahar, Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. For 13 years now, the Indian government has been progressing slowly on this front. While it completed its commitment in Afghanistan by getting the Border Roads Organisation to construct the 200-km-long Delaram- Zaranj or route 606 on the highway in the Nimroz province, there were gaps that needed to be completed before the corridor from Chabahar could travel the 883 km to Zaranj. All the three sides had to deal with issues and constraints at their end. India, for instance, was discouraged to do business with Iran as the latter was under US sanctions for allegedly using its nuclear energy programme to build a nuclear bomb. 

The Indian government under American pressure not just brought down the quantity of oil it purchased from Iran, but also voted against Iran's nuclear programme in IAEA.  It is only after Iran and P5+1 signed an agreement on the civilian nuclear deal that the Chabahar agreement is seeing a serious revival of interest. 

While Iranian diplomats were happy about the promise of Indian investments, what really worries them is that they have not received the payment from Indian refineries of around $6.5 billion for the oil purchased. This payment has been pending for many months. The Iranians feel that non-payment of these oil dues could severely cramp their troubled journey up the international pecking order after the sanctions were lifted. Due to this, the Iranians were very keen that the Indians move faster on fulfilling their promises. On their side, they had set aside projects where no bidding was needed but much to Iran's chagrin India has moved at a glacial pace till the recent uptick in pace. 

There were reasons for this. India has been unhappy with Afghan President Ghani's fondness for Pakistan and is also observing how the US companies themselves have not invested in Iran. It had also not adequately processed long-term implications of the Chinese presence in Gwadar port. These reservations are giving way to some cynicism on the Indian side. President Ghani has been critical of the Pakistani government but has refused to tame the Taliban even after its hand was found in the Kabul violence. The US, too, has been pushing its surrogate companies to give meaning to the lifting of sanctions against Iran. South Korea and Japan, too, are lining investments in Iran and Chabahar. It will be interesting to see how the battle of two Baluchi ports — Gwadar and Chabahar — turns out to be a larger game than anyone can comprehend.

The writer is Editor, ‘Hardnews.’

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