Reinvigorating the Chabahar port
- The Union government has revved up its interest in using Iran’s Chabahar port to connect to Afghanistan and Central Asia for trade, with the visit of the Union Minister of Ports, Shipping & Waterways Sarbananda Sonowal to the port recently.
What is India’s strategic vision for Chabahar?
- When the first agreement for Chabahar was signed by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003, the plan had a three-fold objective:
- to build India’s first offshore port and to project Indian infrastructure prowess in the Gulf;
- to circumvent trade through Pakistan, given the tense ties with India’s neighbour and build a long term, sustainable sea trade route; and
- to find an alternative land route to Afghanistan, which India had rebuilt ties with after the defeat of the Taliban in 2001.
- Subsequently, the Union government constructed the Zaranj -Delaram Highway in Afghanistan’s South, which would help connect the trade route from the border of Iran to the main trade routes to Herat and Kabul, handing it over to the Afghan government in 2009.
- In 2016, the Indian government signed the agreement to develop Chabahar port, as well as the trilateral agreement for trade through Chabahar with Afghanistan.
- In the last few years, a fourth strategic objective for the Chabahar route has appeared, with China’s Belt and Road Initiative making inroads in the region.
- The government hopes to provide Central Asia with an alternate route to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Iran for future trade.
Why is the Chabahar dream taking so long to realise?
- Since the beginning, the development of infrastructure in Chabahar has hit geopolitical road-block after road-block; the biggest issue has been over Iran’s relationship with western countries, especially the United States.
- In years when western sanctions against Iran increased, the Chabahar project has been put on the back-burner, while in the years when nuclear talks that resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 came into being, the Chabahar port has been easier to work on.
- In 2018, the U.S. Trump administration put paid to India’s plans by walking out of the JCPOA and slapping new sanctions on dealing with Iran. This led to the Indian government “zeroing out” all its oil imports from Iran, earlier a major supplier to India, causing a strain in ties.
- Despite the fact that the U.S. made a special “carve-out” on sanctions for Chabahar, on the ground, it has been difficult to source equipment for the port construction from infrastructure companies that continue to fear secondary sanctions, as well as to engage shipping and insurance companies for trade through Chabahar.
- The Indian government also snapped ties with Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August 2021, which put an end to the humanitarian aid of wheat and pulses that was being sent to Kabul via Chabahar. When India restarted wheat aid to Afghanistan this year, it negotiated with Pakistan to use the land route instead.
- With the government now reopening the Indian Embassy in Kabul, and establishing ties with the Taliban government, it is possible that the Chabahar route will once again be employed, another reason for the recent flurry of activity at the Iranian port terminal that India has pinned so many hopes on.
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