Indian penchant for Chabahar Port

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  • US-Iran tension may cause India trouble

 The US-Iran showdown is fraught with the risk of an armed conflict. Tensions are heightened and, if hostilities do break out, one of the countries facing a serious geopolitical setback will be India. The repercussions for India will not just be the aftereffects of a hike in oil prices but it will face numerous other aspects. Ever since President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran and re-imposed economic sanctions, pressures have been building. The shooting down of a US surveillance drone by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the subsequent threat by President Trump of a retaliatory strike have made matters worse for regional security. For starters, Iran has already declared that it would soon breach the limit on nuclear material agreed upon in the 2015 nuclear deal, further escalating the crisis. The USA is also planning to send additional troops to the region.

The mediatory mission that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe undertook to help lower the political temperature between Iran and the USA did not bear fruit. India, which boasts of close relations with Tehran as well as Washington D.C., should have offered its services for mediation but perhaps, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, fresh out of his re-election, did not wish to stick his neck out.

At a moment when China is trying to fill the leadership void left by the retreating USA, the mercurial Trump’s tantrums have acquired potentially dangerous dimensions for India’s regional geopolitical aims

New Delhi has a specific reason to be extremely concerned about the Iran situation. India believes that its strategic ambitions in Central Asia can be realized with Iranian support. Indian aspirations of building Iran’s Chabahar Port on the Gulf of Oman, connecting India to Afghanistan, through which it can gain access to Central Asia and Eurasia bypassing Pakistan, is a major desirability factor. It is also a counterweight to the Gwadar port, a China-Pakistan joint venture. When the 2015 nuclear deal on Iran was clinched, it had created interesting possibilities. There was widespread feeling in India’s strategic circles, and even among some in Washington D.C., that the USA could begin moving troops and supplies through Chabahar. This was the easiest way to reduce US dependence on Pakistan and use the Chabahar route, albeit longer, to pressurize Pakistan. Following this optimistic scenario, Iran, India and Afghanistan signed a trilateral agreement in 2016, which allows the three countries to open new connectivity routes by converting Chabahar port into a transit hub. But the regional context has perhaps changed remarkably with President Trump’s determination to exit from the killing fields of Afghanistan. By withdrawing the US from the Iran nuclear deal, Washington not only lost a huge opportunity to develop an alternate route benefiting US interests in Afghanistan, but also put a question mark over the viability of the Chabahar project. New Delhi has substantially reduced its energy dependence on Iran due to sustained pressure from Washington, and the India-backed Chabahar Port has so far remained outside the purview of US sanctions on Iran re-imposed in 2018. But if the US-Iran relations deteriorate further, India’s Chabahar geopolitics is bound to suffer irreversible damage. No port can survive without a viable commercial ecosystem. And the Gwadar port is already far ahead of Chabahar port in terms of infrastructure and business potential. If military tensions rise, it will hit the commercial activities in Chabahar port. Such a scenario could be welcomed in Islamabad and Beijing.

Although China has been Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friend’ for more than half a century, the scope and dimension of political, economic and military cooperation between the two have been on the rise ever since Xi Jinping came to power. Xi unveiled the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a mega project and positioned China’s effectiveness as an eminent global power bent on doing good in the region, and Pakistan’s geostrategic importance for China also increased manifold.

The geography of Gwadar is very interesting. Situated at the mouth of the Arabian Sea, the Gwadar port is part of the Baluchistan province in Pakistan. The geostrategic significance of the Gwadar port, on which the success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) depends, can’t be overestimated. China has invested heavily in the development of the deep-sea port. If China sees the Gwadar port as a convenient bridge to connect with the Middle East, Pakistan has reasons to regard the port as a counterweight to the growing strategic convergence between India and the USA.

If Iran gets militarily punished by the USA, Tehran’s resultant diplomatic isolation and economic suffering would present China and Pakistan with the greatest opportunity to integrate Chabahar with Gwadar. This would defeat the very foundation of India’s geopolitical plans in Afghanistan and Central Asia through the Chabahar port. This will also increase Chinese influence in the region. This is the opinion of Vinay Kaura in his opinion piece titled ‘India needs Chabahar Port more than ever now, but Trump’s reckless behaviour could ruin it’ published on 25 June.

Afghanistan, which is totally landlocked, has been totally dependent on Pakistan’s Karachi port for its imports and exports. Kaura believes that without access to Chabahar, it will not be possible for Afghanistan to pursue an independent foreign policy. Although Gwadar port offers Afghanistan a better option, but India would persist in making its regional ally think that Chabahar is the only option.

China and Pakistan have been working hard to woo Iran to participate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Contrarily, India is making Iran believe that unlike India, China has a history of seeking complete control over the port infrastructure it invests in. Extremely sensitive about its sovereignty and strategic autonomy, Iran has avoided this option so far. But the worsening economic situation may soon force Iran’s hands.

Last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, during his interactions with Pakistan’s civil-military leadership in Islamabad, reportedly said that Iran has “a proposal for the government of Pakistan for connection between Chabahar and Gwadar…. We believe that Chabahar and Gwadar can complement each other.” This statement rang alarm bells in New Delhi.

Let us examine India’s contentions regarding Gwadar port. Most of India’s crude oil from West Asia comes via the Strait of Hormuz, whose geographic proximity to Gwadar can make Indian shipments particularly vulnerable to Pakistan’s naval actions if hostilities break out. Another worry for India relates to China’s growing involvement in the Gwadar port. Institutionalized presence at Gwadar port gives China easy access to the Arabian Sea and allows China to closely monitor India’s naval movements. If India senses a Chinese threat from Gwadar, it has the option to make military use of Chabahar.

Indian strategic planners tend to believe that due to its locational advantages, Pakistan will continue to create trouble for India’s foreign policymakers. These Pakistani actions will also receive wholehearted Chinese support. Beijing has also invested heavily in developing ports in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as part of its ambitious strategy to contain India. Russia’s newfound interest in boosting ties with Pakistan has already complicated India’s position.

At a moment when China is trying to fill the leadership void left by the retreating USA, the mercurial Trump’s tantrums have acquired potentially dangerous dimensions for India’s regional geopolitical aims. There is no doubt that if the Chabahar port really gets entangled in Trump’s reckless machinations, it will be a major geostrategic setback for India. New Delhi cannot avoid addressing this challenge even though Narendra Modi may not be interested in shuttle diplomacy.

Indian phobias cannot be rested but Narendra Modi will have to discard his blinkers and look at the bigger picture that if it joins CPEC, it may reap more benefits as well as let its investment in Chabahar bear dividends.