It was in 2003 that the idea of Indian assistance in developing the Chabahar port complex and the Chabahar-Farhaj-Bam railway line was first mooted. This was part of the New Delhi declaration signed by the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami. After more than a decade of neglect and indecision, the just-concluded Iran visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to be putting things back on track.
India has now pledged to invest $500 million in developing the Chabahar port complex. Located in the Sistan-Baluchistan province, the Chabahar port is merely 72km away from Gwadar port in Pakistan, which has seen massive investments from the Chinese.
In a brilliant turn of events, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan also made himself available with the Indian prime minister and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to ink the trilateral agreement establishing the Chabahar transport and transit corridors. This will connect Chabahar to Zahedan and further to Zaranj in Afghanistan. The Zaranj-Delaram highway that has been built by India connects Zaranj to major cities in Afghanistan including Kabul, Herat and Kandahar. A memorandum of understanding has also been signed which will enable India to “provide requisite services for the construction of Chabahar-Zahedan railway line”.
This will provide Afghanistan with an alternative route to the seas, and hence bargaining power vis-à-vis Pakistan, reducing its dependence on the Karachi port. It will also provide Indian goods access to Afghanistan and Central Asia as a hostile Pakistan continues to block overland transit through its territory. The likely gains to be made are indeed massive and hence the rhetoric was high. Modi said this could “alter the course of history of the region” and Rouhani said the day will “henceforth be called the Day of Chabahar”. Ghani added: “We wanted to prove geography is not our destiny. With our will, we can change geography.”
While connectivity issues dominated the Iran visit, progress was made on other fronts as well. Energy is another important dimension between India and Iran. With the international sanctions on Iran lifted, oil imports from Iran are inching up once again. India is also exploring the banking channels to clear Iran’s dues—a part of the payment was recently made through Turkey’s Halkbank. Indian investment in the Farzad B gas field is likely to materialize soon. Surprisingly, the joint statement did not mention the undersea gas pipeline from Iran to the Indian state of Gujarat that was planned after the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline could not come through.
The third dimension of India-Iran bilateral relationship is security cooperation. The joint statement makes all the right noises on counter-terrorism. Both India and Iran share concerns over the resurgence of Taliban in Afghanistan. However, Tehran could do little under the impact of sanctions and it also shared a common cause with Taliban in removing American presence from the region. With the nuclear deal and US-Iran rapprochement, the scales may finally be tilting in the right direction. In fact, intelligence inputs from Tehran could well have played a role in the recent killing of Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour.
However, Iran’s involvement in other places such as Yemen and Syria has, so far, kept it away from playing a more meaningful role in Afghanistan.
The fourth dimension of the bilateral relationship is the long-standing cultural and civilizational ties between the people of India and Iran. The two civilizations have sustained a regular exchange of ideas, arts, literature and commerce through millennia of symbiotic relationship. Modi inaugurated an international conference jointly organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and Academy of Persian Language and Literature along with other Iranian partners.
To exemplify the cultural bonhomie, Modi’s remarks in Iran had a smattering of couplets written by Ghalib and Hafez, Persian-language poets from India and Iran, respectively.
Besides, Iran is also important to India, as any other Islamic or predominantly Muslim country, for simply not being Pakistan. Good ties with Iran and other Muslim countries allow New Delhi to reaffirm its refutation of the two-nation theory.
But India’s biggest challenge in Iran is not Pakistan but China. And progress in this visit notwithstanding, China is way ahead. The more reasonable approach for India, however, will be to focus on targets that it has set for itself and not be distracted by China.
This Iran visit by Modi was highly successful, it is now time for diplomats to not let the opportunities be squandered once again.
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