Indo-Iran: A watershed moment

Published: Tue, 06/14/2016 - 08:21 Updated: Tue, 06/14/2016 - 10:21

India’s Chabahar pact with Iran is historic, but it must not take it for granted

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

In 1979, troops from the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan to protect the left-wing government of Noor Muhammad Taraki, who had earlier overthrown the regime of Daud Khan. The Soviet intervention was a watershed moment in the turbulent history of this region as it unleashed violent Islamic fundamentalist forces backed by Western powers and Saudi Arabia that not only permanently destabilised Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, but also introduced new imponderables that are still challenging many governments.

West Asia scholar Sujata Aishwarya, in her highly informative book, India-Iran Relations, mentions that the Soviet Union sent its troops into Kabul as it saw through the tricky games that were being played by the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, and his dreaded secret service, SAVAK. The efforts of SAVAK were geared towards preventing the expansion of Moscow’s influence in Kabul. It realised that the Soviets were trying to stir up trouble amongst the Baluchis and were exploring ways to reach the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Reza Pahlavi’s grand plan failed and a few months later he was  ousted in the Ayatollah Khomeini-led Islamic Revolution. The happenings in Iran upset the balance in the Arab world, compelling Saudi Arabia to use Wahhabi or radical Islam to fight both the Communists and the rise of Persia. Much of what happened in 1979 is casting its shadow on contemporary events. 

It is from this standpoint that the agreement signed between India and Iran to develop Chabahar port and the trilateral transit and trade treaty between Iran, India and Afghanistan has to be viewed. As is clear, the development and primacy that Chabahar has acquired in diplomatic and strategic dialogue cannot adequately be explained by maps. What is visible is that this agreement sidesteps the Pakistan and China-sponsored Gwadar port and its corridor by connecting India to Afghanistan, Central Asia and beyond through Iran. In certain ways, it seeks to check the Wahhabi influence that had begun to spike after the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking after the signing of the agreement on Chabahar, read it correctly when he said that it is an alliance against terrorism, but the critical issue is— how will it play out? Will the somnolent waters of the Gulf of Oman witness fierce contestation and noise similar to the South China Sea due to the looming presence of ambitious China or will it unravel itself differently?

Iran, too, for many years was diffident about developing Chabahar lest it upset Pakistan. The fact that those reservations have disappeared suggests the dramatic change that is taking place in the geopolitics of this region. What is really visible is that the speed at which these developments have unfolded suggests the hand of the US, which will be a major beneficiary of this deal

Iranians have taken pains to ensure that the treaty does not pit them against China or Pakistan, when they insisted that they should be given the freedom to have similar agreements with other countries. Expectedly, Iran has offered space to China and Pakistan to invest in Chabahar. Pakistan, despite having good ties with Iran, is not convinced. Two retired Pakistani generals have criticised the trilateral agreement and presented it as a threat to Gwadar and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). They criticised the lazy Pakistan foreign policy and claimed that their government could be left out after the India-Iran and Afghanistan deal. 

Strong signals

From this standpoint it is very difficult to come to any conclusion, but it is undeniable that Pakistan is taking India’s presence there seriously and feeding the impression that it will exacerbate problems in Baluchistan. The arrest of an alleged R&AW agent, who was located in Chabahar, adds to this symbolism.

The word Chabahar comes from the Hindustani word, char, which means four, and bahar, which means spring. True to its name, it is an all-season cool port located in Baluchistan and Sistan province of Iran. The 10th century scholar and historian, Al-Beruni, identifies Chabahar by its earlier name, Tiz, which is the starting point of old India. In a certain way, he was not wrong.

Before India was partitioned, Chabahar seemed close to imperial India. British civil servant Olaf Caroe, in his book, Wells of Fire (1950), gives details about Russia’s desperation to get to a warm water port and how it sent a transport commission which identified Chabahar as the port of choice. Caroe makes a compelling case of managing turbulent West Asia from India.

However, Partition upset this imperial paradigm and ruptured the normal land routes that economically sustained the economies of Afghanistan and Central Asia. The trilateral agreement will break this geographical chokehold applied by Pakistan on India, Afghanistan and other central Asian countries. The agreement would also revive Caroe’s submission that stability can be brought about in oil-rich West Asia when India — with Iran — plays a big part. 

Transit trade agreement

In 1965, the Afghan government signed the Afghan Transit Trade Agreement that allowed access to  Karachi port, but this led to smuggling. Following this, an understanding brokered by the US government and supported by UNCTAD came into effect in 2011 under the rubric of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade Transit Agreement (APTTA), which increased the access of Afghan goods to more ports in Pakistan.

The APTTA was premised on the assumption that it would open up the road links to Central Asia, but Pakistan kept India out. Afghanistan’s goods could be brought to the Indian border post, but Indian goods could not be sent through Pakistan to Afghanistan. On a visit to Delhi, President Abdul Ghani of Afghanistan had categorically stated that his government would not allow Pakistani goods access to Central Asia if India did not become part of APTTA. China’s grand investment of $46 billion for its 3,200-km Gwadar-Kashgar industrial corridor amply conveys the change it has brought about in the economic geography of the region and how India did not fit into its plans.

India is deeply engaged with Afghanistan —  a fact viewed with grave suspicion by Pakistan. It has invested about $2 billion in the development of Afghanistan’s public projects, knowing that the investments could turn bad after the withdrawal of US troops and the extension of Islamabad’s military hegemony there.

Iran provides an important opportunity for India to reorder its foreign policy options. Despite the pressure being brought on it by Israel and Saudi Arabia, even after the signing of the P5+1 nuclear deal, Iran is on the verge of emerging a regional power. Its ample oil and gas resources, its educational infrastructure, and trained army could soon restore its status, which was affected when the US decided to oppose Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Iran’s Arab neighbours recognise the change taking place in the region.

The Chabahar port development project, supported by India and Japan, could be the first firm move by Iran to play the Great Game. 

Great promise

The Iranian port is just 940 km from the one in Mundra, Gujarat. The latter port is owned by the Adani Group, which is widely known to be close to Modi.

Through Chabahar and the trilateral transit treaty India will not just link to Iran, but also other Central Asian republics. Iran has built world- class road infrastructure from Chabahar, which runs through Iranshahr and Zahidan to Milak on its border with Afghanistan. Across the border in Afghanistan, India has built the Zaranj-Delaram highway to seamlessly connect with a ring road linking Kandahar, Kabul and Herat.

On the Iranian side, India could access the International North-South Trade Corridor (INSTC) to send its goods to Europe. This route is about 40 per cent shorter and 30 per cent cheaper than its current sea route of Red Sea-Suez Canal-Mediterranean.

A recent dry run from Nhava Sheva, Mumbai port in India to Port Bandar Anzali in Iran and Astrakhan in Russia through the Caspian Sea, home to 98 per cent of the world’s caviar, showed a reduction in time by 14 days.

From all standpoints, the Chabahar port and the trilateral trade transit agreement hold great economic promise for the region, but it also has the potential for serious tension between India, Pakistan and China. India had been going slow on this project, but growing pressure from the US seems to have fast-tracked matters.

Iran, too, for many years was diffident about developing Chabahar lest it upset Pakistan. The fact that those reservations have disappeared suggests the dramatic change that is taking place in the geopolitics of this region. What is really visible is that the speed at which these developments have unfolded suggests the hand of the US, which will be a major beneficiary of this deal.

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India’s Chabahar pact with Iran is historic, but it must not take it for granted
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

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