The India-Iran Chabahar port project will test our diplomacy

On 13 May India renewed its commitment to the Chabahar port, considering the facility’s strategic location on the southern tip of Iran’s Sistan Baluchistan province. (PTI)
On 13 May India renewed its commitment to the Chabahar port, considering the facility’s strategic location on the southern tip of Iran’s Sistan Baluchistan province. (PTI)


  • The death of Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi may prove a setback for India’s 10-year port agreement with Tehran. Blame inflamed geopolitics. The US may grimace at India-Iran relations, but New Delhi should press ahead with strategic autonomy.

The death of Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash has given a new twist to India’s geopolitical choices and manoeuvring over Iran’s Chabahar port. It was only a few days ago, on 13 May, that India renewed its commitment to this Gulf of Oman port, considering the facility’s strategic location on the southern tip of Iran’s Sistan Baluchistan province and a stone’s throw from its border with Pakistan. 

Also read: Ebrahim Raisi dies in helicopter crash: What does Iranian President's death mean for India-Iran ties?

In fact, shipping minister Sarbananda Sonowal took special permission from the Election Commission to take a break from the poll campaign to visit Iran for signing the agreement, which replaces the investment pact of 2016. The new 10-year deal provides for joint development and operation of the port and commits India Ports Global to invest $370 million in upgrading it. 

Mutual ties have thus been strengthened amid tightening US sanctions against doing business with Iran. As India’s foreign minister S. Jaishankar said recently, it was Raisi’s personal interest and initiative that facilitated the port partnership.

With Raisi’s unfortunate and untimely demise, there is now some uncertainty about his successor’s outlook towards India in general and Chabahar in particular. In all likelihood, an election due within two months will put another hardliner in political power, as candidates will be hand-picked by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The Chabahar project, to be sure, is vital to Tehran’s interests. 

It not only gives Iran access to different markets, but may also provide a multiplier effect to its economy wounded by US sanctions. And yet, the new president’s priorities are likely to be the pressing geopolitical threats Iran faces before he can turn his attention to such trade enablers. This setback comes over and above other challenges. The larger question mark over Chabahar’s progress could emanate from the US disposition towards it. 

Having waived sanctions on its joint development earlier, it has made noises lately about the possibility of punitive sanctions. A lot will depend on who wins the White House this November. The second challenge lies north of the Hindukush range. 

When Chabahar was originally conceived as a three-way trade project between India, Iran and Afghanistan, an embryonic democracy was being nurtured in Kabul. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 has skewed that equation and could jeopardize the original plan of extracting Afghan ores and minerals for Indian refineries.

Also read: Mint Explainer: Why Iran’s Chabahar Port is vital to India's interests

Chabahar is critical for India’s geo-strategic ambitions on multiple fronts. New Delhi’s tacit support for Israel and tactical ambivalence on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, driven primarily by its multi-platform security partnership with Tel Aviv, was threatening to undermine our long-held position of ‘strategic autonomy.’ The renewed deal with Iran balances that out somewhat. 

Even otherwise, Chabahar can play a pivotal role in India’s ambitious trade routes and logistical chains. The India-Middle-East-Europe Economic Corridor, finalized at last year’s G20 summit, could complement the access to Europe that Chahabar is placed to grant via the planned North-South Transport Corridor. 

But the real problem lies more than 300km to the port’s east: Pakistan’s Gwadar port is being developed jointly with China as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. India’s negotiating skills, geopolitical acumen and staying power will be severely tested as the country juggles numerous balls up in the air on account of Chabahar alone.

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