Chabahar port is located in Iran next to the Gulf of Oman and at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz. It is the only Iranian port with direct access to the Indian Ocean. Located in close proximity to Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, it has been termed as the Golden Gate to these landlocked countries. In terms of distance, Chabahar is 700 km from the capital of Baluchistan province, 950 km from Milak, the closest city of Afghanistan and 1827 km from Turkmenistan border. In terms of sea distances the Pakistani port of Gwadar is 84 km, Dubai is 565 km, Karachi is 728 km, and Mumbai is 1349 km from Chabahar.
Iran- India Partnership
During the 1990s, India along with Iran and Russia, collaborated in backing the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against the Taliban. The Taliban continues to be supported by Pakistan., even now. It was at this time Iran invited India to develop the Chabahar port to obtain a land access into Afghanistan. This was followed by a trilateral agreement in 1997 with Turkmenistan to expand trade into Central Asia followed by another agreement with Russia to provide seamless transport between India and Europe via an international North-South transport corridor.
The attacks on the twin towers in New York and other places in the United States on 11 September 2001, led to the American Armed Forces along with several countries moving into Afghanistan. At this stage, the three countries India, Iran and Afghanistan got together in January 2003, agreeing on a joint development of transportation links to Afghanistan. India agreed to expand the Chabahar port and to lay a railway track between Chabahar and Zaranj. India has spent USD 134 million during 2005 to 2009 to construct a road from Delaram in Afghanistan to Zaranj at the Iran-Afghanistan border. Iran has completed first phase of the Chabahar port at a cost of USD 340 million. Connectivity from Chabahar through Milak, Zaranj and Delaram has been established to the Garland Road in Afghanistan which connects the major Afghan cities Herat, Kandahar, Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. In March 2012, ships from India docked at Chabahar carrying 100,000 tons of wheat under humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. However, without further development of the port, the roads remained unutilised. There were issues of American pressures which slowed down development work. In 2012, during the Non Aligned Meet, the three countries discussed the issues, which finally received a push resulting in agreements signed in May 2016.
In May 2016, India signed a series of twelve Memorandums of Understanding which pertained to the port of Chabahar. The most important one pertains to the deal between Iran and India which permits India to develop and operate two berths of the Chabahar port for 10 years. This will be done by India Ports Global, a joint venture between Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust and Kandla Port Trust in partnership with Iran’s Aria Banader. The company has guaranteed handling of 30,000 twenty foot equivalent units (TEUs) ships on completion of two years and eventually reaches a figure of 250,000 TEUs. The berths will be developed at a cost of USD 85 million. A container handling facility of 640 meters will be constructed and reconstruction of a 600 meters container handling capability in the second berth. All these will be fitted with modern port handling equipment. This would result in the port handling capability of Chabahar being enhanced from 2.5 million tons to 8 million tons.
It is pertinent to note that the investment is supplemented with a USD 150 million line of credit to Iran through the Exim Bank of India. Apart from this, a Memorandum of Understanding was also signed for the financing of the planned Chabahar-Zahedan railway line as a part of the North-South transport corridor by Indian Railway’s construction unit Ircon International. The offer entails providing the cost of USD 1.6 billion. This would enable Chabahar to be linked to Iran, Afghanistan and Russia by rail. The important issue at the moment is that the Port and Maritime Organisation of Iran has not completed the application of loan for USD 150 million, despite reminders from the Exim Bank of India for the last nine months. This need to be expedited and the Iranian authorities are assuring that the same will be done. Viewed in the back drop of the recent United States sanctions due to Iran recently testing a ballistic missile, the Iranians have stated that issue is under consideration. It is essential to note that Iranians are slow in their decision making and in the interests of both countries the application would be signed by the Iranian authorities.
As per Mr Aagam G. Shah, a political observer as stated in quora.com, the reason for Indian economic and geopolitical involvement with Iran is to counter the influence of China’s String of Pearls strategy. The advantages that would accrue are as under:
• It will provide a land route to Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia and Russia. In doing so, it will make way for India to bypass Pakistan in transporting goods to Afghanistan using a sea-land route. At present, Pakistan does not allow India to transport goods through its territory to Afghanistan.
• It would give momentum to the international North-South transport corridor of which both are initial signatories. It entails the ship, rail and road routes for moving freight between India, Russia, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Europe.
• It would counter the Chinese presence in the Arabian Sea through the support to Pakistan in developing Gwadar port. Further it would enable our shipping vessels to be provided security if the need arises in the region.
• All these leads to the development of the region and with iron ore deposits available, it could result in a steel plant being opened in this region. This would see the region developing economically apart from being a communication hub.
• The other important issue is the Japanese interest in developing Chabahar. Japan’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs Mr Kentaro Sonoura during a visit to Afghanistan in January 2017, pledged to develop access for Chabahar. Japan’s interest in Chabahar is important to India as her assistance would ensure time bound completion of the port leading to timely optimisation of facilities. Japan is an important strategic partner of India and her support would be essential in countering Chinese influence in Gwadar. Overall India is playing an important strategic role in Afghanistan. Currently India is training the Afghan National Army and providing limited military equipment. We are undertaking capacity development for which material, both civil and military, needs to reach Afghanistan. Chabahar provides connectivity and this in turn provides multiple strategic options. Apart from move of equipment we could plan training exercises initially at a small scale and later at a larger scale between the two armies. Such training schemes would benefit us and at the same time make Pakistan shaky about the strategic depth as we would now be carrying out a manoeuvre which operationally would be a turning movement by India against Pakistan. The same could be extended to other countries in the region.
Undoubtedly, development of the port of Chabahar would be a game changer for the region. Apart from countering the Chinese port of Gwadar, the route would possibly eliminate the term ‘strategic depth’ from the lexicon of the Pakistan armed forces. It is hoped that the Iranian government completes the application for the USD 150 million loan and forwards it to the Exim Bank of India. Thereafter, under our dynamic Prime Minister, events will move expeditiously. Let us hope that this is given the highest importance by our authorities. Thereafter India would be able to extend its reach as a regional power.It is extremely important that India connects on a land route to Afghanistan to exercise its strategic options. Chabahar provides us this great opportunity and we must leave no stone unturned to turn this concept into a reality.
An alumnus of the NDA, the DSSC, and the NDC, New Delhi, Maj. Gen. PK Chakravorty, VSM was commissioned into the Regiment of Artillery on 31 March 1972. An M Phil from Madras University, he is a prolific writer on strategic subjects and a NCR based Defence Analyst. This article first appeared in Bharatshakti.in dated 29 May 2017.