Chabahar agreement a major success
The signing of the trilateral agreement on Chabahar port during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to Iran this month is a major success for Indian diplomacy, in the backdrop of a growing India-China rivalry in the region.
In fact, ever since Pakistan handed over the control of its Gwadar port to China in 2013, it became strategically imperative for India to develop the Chabahar port. The development of the Chabahar port will offer India direct access to Afghanistan, Central Asia, and beyond, bypassing Pakistan. With Gwadar under Chinese control, the freedom of operation by the Indian navy in the Arabian Sea in any future conflict would have been exposed to greater risk.
The strategic importance of Chabahar is immense. It is just 100 km from Gwadar, located in south-eastern Iran, lying out of the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf. Gwadar is located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Gwadar port is connected with China's western province of Xinjiang through rail and road link running through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Control of Gwadar port has greatly helped China.
Its eastern ports are nearly 3,500 km away from Kashgar in the western part of the country. The distance from Kashgar to Gwadar is less than half of that.India undertook to develop the Chabahar port during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Prime Ministership. India signed an agreement with Iran for building the port.
But subsequently, Iran’s relations with the US became strained. The US imposed economic sanctions on Iran. One fall out of it was that work on Chabahar port was stalled. Now with US-Iran relations improving and the economic sanction lifted, it has become possible for India to finish the job it had undertaken way back in the 1990s.
A complementary part of the Chabahar project is the 500 km long railway line that India will construct from Chabahar to Zahedan. The line will be built as a part of the North-South Corridor. Like the port, it will also give India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The importance of Zahedan is that it is the capital of the Sistan-Balochistan province and is located 40 km south of the point where borders of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan meet. The altitude of Zahedan is 4500 feet above sea level.
Zahedan is an industrial hub where many small and medium industries are located. There is already a railway line connecting it with Quetta in Pakistan. India’s will be a second line providing it a rail link with the port city of Chabahar, which is a free-trade zone. The long-term effect of India-Iran cooperation in the development of the Chabahar port and its connectivity to Zahedan will be beneficial to both the countries. India had to make a quick decision on the Chabahar project as the Chinese had already started sounding Teheran on it, offering cooperation.
India is also busy ascertaining the possibility of oil and gas exploration in Iran. ONGC Videsh has an ambitious $10 billion investment plan in Iran’s Farzad gas field which has an estimated reserve of 13 trillion cft of natural gas. Both India and China are energy-hungry countries and there is already a keen competition between the two for finding newer sources of oil and gas. India is now the world’s third largest importer of crude oil.
In fact, many believe that it is the frantic quest for oil which is behind China’s unilateral claim on the whole of the South China Sea and its desperate attempt to prevent India and Vietnam from exploring the immense reserves of oil lying buried in the seabed. The Chinese believe that the South China Sea has more oil than any other country except perhaps Saudi Arabia. Some Chinese estimates put the South China Sea reserve at 130 billion barrels of oil.
The US-Iran détente has created the necessary climate for increasing Indo-Iranian cooperation in different fields.
Looked at from India’s long-term strategic and commercial interest, the importance of Chabahar port project, the Chabahar-Zahedan railway project and the oil exploration project cannot be overestimated. China’s challenge to India is not just military but also economic. Beijing has reached out to as far a country as Fiji with its aid. In the context of growing Sino-Indian rivalry in the Indian Ocean Region, India will have to deepen and diversify its cooperation with its neighbouring countries.
Iran occupies an important place in this. The Prime Minister’s Iran visit has opened up a new vista of cooperation with Iran with which India always had a good relation even when Iran was facing US sanction and India had to cut its oil imports from there which hurt both the countries.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)