India’s Chabahar gambit

  0 comments   |     by Asif Ezdi

Last Wednesday, India and Iran signed a Memorandum of Understanding to develop the Chabahar port on the Gulf of Oman, not far from Gwadar, which Pakistan is developing as a deep-water port with China’s cooperation.

According to a press release of the Indian foreign ministry on the signing of the MoU, Indian and Iranian commercial entities would now commence negotiations on a contract under which Indian firms will lease two existing berths at the port and “operationalise them as container and multi-purpose cargo terminals”. 

The strategically important Chabahar port project is designed to provide India an access route to Afghanistan and Central Asia that bypasses Pakistan. The port is already connected through Iran’s existing road network with Zaranj in Afghanistan and will then link up with the Afghan road system over the Zaranj-Delaram road built by India in 2009. Besides giving India an alternative route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, which it is claimed will bring significant savings in transport costs and time, India’s lease of facilities at Chabahar will also give it a strategic foothold close to the mouth of Gulf of Hormuz on the west and Gwadar on the east.

The Chabahar project was originally floated in 2003 by Iranian President Khatemi and Indian Prime Minister Vajpyee but remained stalled because of UN and western sanctions on Iran and questions about its commercial viability. It was reactivated by India after Pakistan and China agreed to develop an economic corridor linking the Gwadar Port with China’s Xinjiang province. In October last year the Indian government approved an investment of $85 million on the development of the port.

India has now signed the MoU with Iran on the Chabahar port without waiting for the lifting of sanctions and despite US pressure not to ‘rush’ into doing business with Iran as long as the final agreement on its nuclear programme has not been worked out. This advice was repeated publicly by Under Secretary Wendy Sherman on a visit to India at the end of last month. 

One reason why Delhi chose to go against the US wishes was given by Reuters. As the news agency said, “Iran could rapidly develop as a destination for global investors if Western sanctions are lifted, and Modi is keen to fast-track the port project before Tehran has time to rethink.” Delhi’s worries about the possibility of Iran reconsidering the Chabahar project can only have been heightened by Iran’s decision last month to turn down a deal offered by India for the development of the Farzad-B natural gas field off Iran’s coast about which the two sides had been talking since 2009.

While the possibility of an Iranian rethink on Chabahar is very remote, there are other more likely scenarios which have been bothering Indian policymakers as they make their plans for the strategic encirclement of Pakistan. The launching of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project tops the list of Indian concerns on this score. 

As Iran seeks to boost its oil and gas sales following the lifting of sanctions, it has been looking especially at China. Last month Iran sent its oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, to Beijing to discuss oil and gas development projects and increase its oil exports. With the impending lifting of sanctions, Iran will get a bigger share of China’s energy imports and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor would be the shortest route for a gas pipeline between the two countries. That is not something that exactly suits India’s plans for the region.

But a gas pipeline between Iran and China is something for the future. India’s more immediate worry is that the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project might finally become a reality with Chinese financing once the sanctions are lifted. The restrictions on Iran’s energy exports are expected to be among the first to be lifted according to the framework accord between P5+1 and Iran last April and the pipeline could be completed in two years after that.

It is no secret that India has been up to all kinds of tricks to sabotage the Iran-Pakistan pipeline project. The pipeline was originally planned to extend to India. Delhi dropped out in 2009, not due so much to US pressure or the high costs, as it gave out, but because it hoped that its non-participation would kill the project.

Now that the project has been reactivated, India has again conveyed its interest in it to Iran. A delegation of India’s finance and oil ministries which held talks with Iranian officials in Tehran last month on oil and gas projects discussed the issue of the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline as well. India’s real aim of course is not to re-join the venture but to delay and, if possible, scupper it.

As with Delhi’s attempts to make Iran a partner in the encirclement of Pakistan, the Modi government’s effort to use Afghanistan to advance India’s agenda against Pakistan have also not been going according to plan recently. The Indian government frets that Ashraf Ghani’s moves to mend fences with Pakistan and forge closer ties with China as well as his keenness for talks with the Taliban might lead to a loss of India’s influence in Afghanistan, which Delhi has enjoyed since the ouster of the Taliban from power in 2001. These worries were not set at rest by the Afghan president’s visit to India last month or by talks held in Qatar between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban.

By visiting China and Pakistan within months of his election, as well as Saudi Arabia and Iran, before making his trip to India, Ghani sent out the message that while attaching high importance to relations with Delhi, he did not consider his country to be a client state of India. Before undertaking his visit, Ghani also earned Delhi’s displeasure by his willingness to curb the freedom enjoyed by TTP elements operating against Pakistan from Afghan soil. India is also sore at his decision to send six Afghan cadets for training at the Pakistan Military Academy and at his failure to follow up on the request for Indian military hardware made by Karzai in his famous ‘wish list’. 

To the dismay of his Indian hosts, Ghani did not take pot-shots at Pakistan during his India trip for alleged sanctuary provided to Afghan Taliban, as his predecessor relished doing. Instead, the Afghan president focussed on the common threat emanating for all countries “from India to Russia” from the Islamic State. India was also unhappy when Ghani earlier held the Islamic State responsible for a bombing in Jalalabad last month which killed dozens of civilians. India’s grouse was that he did not blame “Pakistan-backed groups” for the massacre.

Another important issue on which India is aggrieved is that Ghani would like to find a political solution to the decades-long bloodshed in Afghanistan through talks with the Taliban. Ostensibly India favours an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process but differs with Ghani’s willingness to talk with the Taliban without the pre-conditions or ‘red lines’ that Karzai had stipulated. This of course is pure humbug.

India also professes to be concerned that talks with the Taliban might give Pakistan a say in the outcome because of the ties of the Pakistani ‘establishment’ with Taliban leaders. This too is a self-serving argument, because the Taliban are no one’s puppets. India’s real problem is that if the Taliban join the political mainstream, it might lose the dominant position it has built up assiduously in Afghanistan since 2001, especially in the country’s security institutions, as well as the ability to influence Pakistan from Afghan soil.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that India is concerned at the commencement of contacts between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar at the beginning of this month. As expected, these talks did not achieve any immediate concrete results. Nevertheless, the agreement on continuing these contacts and on the reopening of the Taliban political office in Doha, as well as the positive tone of the meeting, have been welcomed by the international community as positive developments – with the conspicuous exception of India. 

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