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The first two-day meeting of the India-Central Asian Republics (CARs) Joint Working Management Group on Chabahar Port started on 12 April in Mumbai. The conference was attended by Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, along with special invitees from Iran and the UN World Food Programme (UNWFP). This Working Group was formed after the Delhi Declaration of the first India-Central Asia summit in Jan 2022. The critical issue to be discussed in this forum was the Central Asian Republics’ (CARs) significant participation in the Chabahar port, which India and Iran are developing.
The Chabahar port, situated in the southeastern Iranian city of that name, is strategically located as a regional commercial transportation hub. It is pertinent to mention that India, Iran, and Afghanistan inked a trilateral agreement in 2016 to set up the International Transport and Transit Corridor (Chabahar Agreement). India provided USD 85 Million in funding and a credit facility of USD 150 Million for developing the Shahid Behesti Terminal in the port. India also has presented equipment worth USD 25 Million in aid for developing the port and six Mobile Harbour Cranes.
India promised to cooperate with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and delivered 20,000 tonnes of wheat as assistance to Afghanistan via Iran’s Chabahar port. India had earlier supplied about 40,000 tonnes of wheat through land routes via Pakistan but faced numerous problems there.
The importance of Chabahar Port: The port is located in the Gulf of Oman, at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz and in Sistan-va-Baluchestan, Iran’s least developed Ostan (province). It is a deep-water port with direct access to the Indian Ocean. It is a fishing industry centre and a significant trade hub connecting South Asia with Central Asia. India and Iran must reduce their dependence on Suez Canal to connect with Europe, and Chabahar Port can help to fulfill this aim.
Chabahar Port is strategically important for India, and a connection from India’s western coast can be established. It is essential for India from the following points of view:
- It can shorten India’s access route to Central Asia by 1/3rd.
- It could help to develop the link between India and Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan ultimately. Through that route, India can access four major cities of Afghanistan, such as Herat, Kandahar, Kabul, and Mazer-e-Sharif.
- It would help to establish and strengthen trade links with Afghanistan and CARs.
- As the fastest-growing economy in the world, India must expand its market and trade links with CARs and other East European countries.
- Strengthening relations with Iran, India can counter-balance the influence of Sino-Pakistan cooperation in the region. India and Iran share historical links.
- It will help Afghanistan reduce its dependence on Pakistan which handles most of the trade in landlocked Afghanistan.
India is also working on linking Chabahar Port with Russia’s International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). India has already built a 218 km-long road from Delaram to Zaranj and plans to connect the road to INSTC.
India is keen to use this port to connect oil-rich CARs through the road connecting Milak (Iran) and Zaranj-Dilaram (Afghanistan) roads. The Chabahar Port, which is 940 Km from Mudra in Gujrat, will facilitate the movement of goods to Afghanistan, CAR, the Middle East and East European countries. It will enhance trade and connectivity and help balance China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Notably, it is very close to the port of Gwadar, which China is developing as the terminal of Pakistan’s China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The Challenges Faced by India in Developing Chabahar Port: India has been a critical stakeholder in developing Iran’s strategic port of Chabahar. India has since undertaken numerous steps to speed up the development of the port and bring it up to its full potential. Nevertheless, the decades-old confrontation between Iran and the US and the imposition of harsh economic sanctions on Iran under the West’s maximum pressure policy have adversely affected New Delhi’s desire to convert its commitments into concrete actions. It is essential to analyse India’s advances and challenges in implementing the port project. These challenges could be summarised as under:
- The Growing Iran-China Relations. Recently, Iran and China have moved closer to each other to counteract the sanctions imposed by the US and its allies. Iran has signed a USD 400 billion economic agreement with China. Subsequently, China has brokered peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
- The conflict between Iran and the US has affected the progress in developing the port, and India is unable to improve relations with Iran beyond a certain point. India can’t antagonise the US because India needs the American Government’s goodwill on many other issues.
- Creating a delicate balance in relations with Middle Eastern countries. India’s relations with Iran amount to a subtle balancing act on the part of India, given the latter’s closeness to Israel.
- Pakistan sees the agreements between India, Iran and Afghanistan as posing a security threat. Pakistan fears isolation due to this alliance as it has strained relations with both India and Iran. Pakistan perceives this triangle as a challenge with far-reaching effects on its own position in the region..
- Pakistan and China perceive Gwadar and Chabahar Ports as rivals, which is actually not true.
Geographical proximity, regional connectivity and the desirability of economic integration as well as common security challenges in Afghanistan and West and Central Asia warrant close collaboration between India and Iran. India should develop its relations with Iran separately from its bilateral ties with the US, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and with Israel in the region.
The way forward: At the first-ever joint working group meeting on the Chabahar port, held in Mumbai from 12-13 Apr 2023. India and CARs reiterated that connectivity initiatives must conform to international norms, transparency, local priorities, financial sustainability and respect for all nations’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The Consul General of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan stressed the importance of Chabahar port for delivering humanitarian help to the Afghan people and providing an opportunity for Afghan traders and business people. The mention of the lack of overland connectivity with India was in direct reference to Pakistan’s denial of transit access to India for Afghanistan and CARs. At this meeting, the deputy foreign minister of Iran wished to hold the next round of India-CAR Joint Working Group deliberations in his country and with private sector representatives.
The Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, GoI, in collaboration with India Ports Global Ltd, organised a workshop on the Linking Chabahar Port with INSTC in Mumbai. The International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC) is a multi-modal transportation route connecting the Indian Ocean Region and the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea through Iran and onward to northern Europe via St. Petersburg in Russia.
Iran officially handed over the port to India during the first meeting of the follow-up committee to implement the Chabahar Agreement between Iran, Afghanistan, and India in Tehran in Dec 2018. This allowed India to handle ships at the port and supply wheat to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. The US kept the operations of this port outside the purview of its sanctions against Iran.
The Ministry of Port, Shipping and Waterways (MoPSW), in association with India Ports Global, observed ‘Chabahar Day’ to mark the Chabahar – Link to INSTC – Connecting Central Asian Markets in Mumbai.
Conclusion: India has historical links with Iran, Afghanistan and CARs. In 2003, India and Iran focused on opening transport corridors and intensifying energy cooperation. India’s desire to reach Afghanistan and CARs through a sea route since Pakistan blocked land transit and access fuelled the development of the Chabahar port which is located 72 kilometers west of Pakistan’s Gwadar port. India constructed a 218 km-long road from Delaram to Zaranj to link up Afghanistan with the Chabahar Port which will make it much easier for Indian goods to enter Central Asian markets and provide a significant stimulus to Afghanistan’s economic reconstruction efforts.
Many believe that the Chabahar project will limit the expansion of the Gwadar port in Pakistan and stunt China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through Pakistan. The port would naturally reinforce cooperation between Iran and India.