By Umar Karim
August 22, 2020
The Middle Eastern-South Asian borderlands have been the focus of new geopolitical ventures for some years now. The coastal zones of Pakistan and Iran near their border have been the hub of this highly significant and strategic infrastructural activity. The port of Gwadar is being developed by China and remains vital to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) while on the other hand the port of Chabahar in Iran has been developed by India that has been geared to be the pivot point for the India-Iran-Afghanistan transit initiative. The construction and operationalization of these seaports have further intertwined the political complexities of South Asia and the Middle East and has attracted the interest of various regional and international actors.
On the narrative front, both Iran and Pakistan have avoided to project their respective port projects as competitors for each other and have rather maintained a discourse of cooperation when it comes to these two ports. Yet, the two seaports definitely have a role that in some ways counters the utility of the other project. Becoming a focal point of Afghan transit trade has been a prime goal of both of these projects, but owing to the American sanctions over Iran after President Donald Trump left the Iran nuclear deal, international players have been reluctant to engage with Iran in the commercial and trade domain.
Observers in Pakistan have always remained cautious by the Indian involvement in Chabahar and its presence there. The most recent developments in this regard that have propelled excitement levels in Pakistan have been the “so-called” Indian removal from the “Chabahar Project” and the recent surfacing of the China-Iran strategic pact paving the way for allegedly $400 billion worth of Chinese investments. But is this really the case? In order to understand what has really happened, we need to deconstruct both the notion of Indian removal and the Chabahar project itself.
The term Chabahar Project loosely encapsulates different infrastructural initiatives. These include the development of the Chabahar Port, the integration of the port into the Chabahar free trade zone and, thirdly, the construction of the Chabahar-Zahedan Railway line that can be further extended to Zaranj on the Afghan side. The Indian government had sanctioned an amount of $85 million annually to upgrade, equip and operate two terminals of the port on a ten-year lease. Iran managed to upgrade the port infrastructure in the first phase of port development, and it was handed over to India in 2017. Since then the port has been operational and under the control of India Global Ports Limited (IPGL), an Indian government entity formed to administer overseas port projects.
However, private investors within India had remained vary in putting their money into the operations of the port. The IPGL was supposed to recruit a private Indian firm as a strategic partner to manage port operations but two rounds of bidding haven’t resulted in anything concrete leading to the port operations being handed over to an Iranian firm, Kaveh Port and Marine Services.
Indian state-owned Ircon International Limited (IRCON) had shown interest in the construction of Chabahar-Zahedan railway track. However, these negotiations never matured and thus IRCON was never officially awarded the contract for track construction. Thus, the notion that it was removed from the project remains absurd. The Iranian government has also suggested that in future India may become part of this project. This further clarifies that the project is solely Iranian and there seems to be no Chinese involvement in it at least for now.
In order to better comprehend the geopolitical importance of the Chabahar project for India, we need to understand that Indian involvement within the project and its investments there are not driven by commercial interests. Indeed, there will be long term commercial benefits of this venture, but the Indian investment remains primarily of a strategic nature. The Chabahar port provides India with a unique strategic outpost close to the Pakistani border and alongside its Balochistan province that has been a prime target of Indian sponsored sabotage activities.
In addition to this, the transit trade route with Afghanistan has been activated and Indian goods have been transported to Afghanistan through Chabahar without any hindrance. This means that one of the primary purposes of Indian investment to increase connectivity between India-Iran-Afghanistan has been realized. This has strategic and economic implications for Pakistan. In future, a renegotiation of the Iran nuclear deal under a Biden presidency may result in lifting of US sanctions from Iran and open all avenues for Indian investments within Iran and further connectivity with Central Asia may also become possible.
For Pakistan it is important to critically evaluate these developments and not to prematurely celebrate. India has not left Chabahar and its presence in a place that is close to Balochistan will continue to impact upon the security situation within the province and that of the CPEC.