By JK Verma
New Delhi. 05 December 2017.Chabahar is a big strategic victory of India as now it can export goods not only to Iran but to land-locked countries of Central Asia and Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan which was creating numerous hurdles. Both India and Afghanistan tried to persuade Pakistan to allow the use of its territory for trade between India and Afghanistan but Pakistan which continuously infiltrates terrorists in both the countries put several unreasonable restrictions which hampered the bilateral trade. If India succeeds in enhancing bilateral trade with these landlocked countries India can emerge as a dependable economic powerhouse in the region.
India can also import energy from energy rich Central Asian countries as the demand of energy will grow manifold as India implements its developmental and infrastructural projects.
Pakistan which fears that India assists Balochistan secessionist movement through Afghanistan refused passage to Afghan trucks to Attari, India Pakistan border. Now Pakistani trucks carry Afghan goods up to India-Pakistan borders but do not carry Indian goods for Afghanistan. Pakistan also alleges that India would use Afghanistan to destabilize Pakistan. Although now Pakistan is criticizing India for the construction of Chabaharport but in fact Pakistan itself is responsible for its plight.
Hassan Rouhani President of Iran inaugurated,first phase out of four phases of,strategic Chabahar port on December 3rd, 2017.The handling capacity of the port is enhanced from 2.5 million tonnes to 80 million tonnes per annum. The inauguration ceremony was attended by the representatives of 17 countries including Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. Chabahar port which is also known as ShahidBehesti Port would be significant for India economically as well as strategically.
Iranian president very diplomatically stressed the positive aspects of Chabahar without mentioning that it will bypass Pakistan or may work against Chinese interests.
Minister of State for Shipping PonRadhakrishnan represented India in the inauguration ceremony but stopover of External Affairs Minister SushmaSwaraj at Tehran and her luncheon meeting with Iran Foreign Minister Dr. JavadZarif was noteworthy as both sides discussed bilateral issues including the future progress of Chabahar port. Both the ministers also discussed about India’s proposal for Farzad-B oil and gas fields.
Both India and Iran had waited for long 15years for the commencement of Chabahar port, as both the countries decided to develop this strategic port in 2003 during the visit of Iranian President Mohammed Khatami to India. The project was delayed due to stiff opposition of United States and sanctions put by several countries. However in 2013 some sanctions were diluted and the work on USD 1 billion extension of Chabahar port renewed.
India, Iran and Afghanistan also signed an accord in May 2016 during the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Iran, which would permit Afghanistan to export its products to India through Chabahar port; it will minimize Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan.
Chabahar port will also diminish the importance of Gwadar port which is just 100 K.Ms by sea and about 400 KMs by road. India can counteract Chinese presence in Gwadar port through Chabahar port. China has not only constructed Gwadar port but it is also managing the same. Chabahar may work as another counter to China as India is becoming closer to US, Japan and Australia.
Chabahar which is much smaller, in comparison to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which comprises several infrastructure projects which will cost more than USD 62 billion, is vital because of its strategic location.
India had already completed Delaram-Zaranjhighway in Afghanistan, despite stiff resistance from Taliban, in which few Indians were also martyred. The highway which is about 215 KMs long connects four important cities of Afghanistan from Iran. It will boost Afghanistan trade from several countries including India through Chabahar. India has already sent first shipment of wheat to Afghanistan through Chabahar port.
In the sidelines of inauguration, Minister of State for Shipping discussed with his counterparts of Iran and Afghanistan about the execution of trade and transit agreement signed in May 2016. The joint statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs stated that “The three sides reviewed and positively assessed the progress in the development of the Chabahar Port and reiterated their commitment to complete and operationalise the port at the earliest.”
India has also agreed to spendUSD 500 million in constructing two berths in Chabahar port and spend another USD 1.6 billion to construct 650-KMs railway line from Chabahar to Zahedan. The rail link will also go inside Afghanistan so that the landlocked country is also linked from Chabahar through railway line.
Abdullah Abdullah Chief Executive of Afghanistan also stated that now Afghanistan is not dependent on Pakistan for transit trade as now Chabahar can also be used.
Although US hinderedconstruction of Chabahar port for several years but it is important for US also. So far US was fully dependent on Karachi port for the supply of arms, ammunition and other items to US led NATO forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan government as well as various terrorist organisations exploited this situation and several times US had to accept unreasonable demands of Pakistan for the smooth flow of supplies to their troops. There are reports that the contractors paid money to diverse terrorist outfits for the safe passage of NATO supplies from Karachi to Afghanistan. Now US can use ChabaharPort for the supply of essential items to NATO troops in trouble-torn Afghanistan.
The relations between US and Iran are tense and it is the reason that US blocked Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipe-line also.
Iran has given administrative control to India and requested it to manage till the second phase is complete. India which has the administrative control over the port should manage it well so that the interests of the country are fulfilled and relations between India and Iran are further strengthened. It may not be out of point to mention that India continued its business ties with Iran when it was passing through the difficult phase of sanctions. India got the order by defeating Chinese firms hence Indian firms must complete the full contract honestly, diligently and expeditiously.
India can enhance export of rice, sugar, iron and steel, plastic products, vehicles etc. to Iran and can reduce the trade balance. The transportation cost would also be reduced hence India can import more crude oil from Iran.
At present India is constructing a urea plant in Iran and should also try to get orders from other countries of the region to construct urea plants as well as other plants in the region. Most of the countries like to have relations with placid India in comparison to aggressive China. The urea imported from the plant may be helpful in reducing the subsidy the present government is giving to the farmers.
After achieving success in the construction of Chabahar port India should also try to implement road connectivity plan between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) although the project is in jeopardy because upper house of Bhutan Parliament refused to ratify the motor vehicle pact.
Jai Kumar Verma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst and a retired senior intelligence officer. The views in the article are solely the author’s. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org