|By Mahendra Ved||Published: December 2017|
New Delhi. ‘Chabahar’ literally means a place where all four seasons of the year are like spring. To pun the word, the new port should also add spring not only to the developing ties between India, Iran and Afghanistan but also the countries in South, West and Central Asia in significant ways in the coming years.
The first phase of this natural deep sea port in Iran, also called Shahid Behesti Port, has been completed and on December 3, it was ceremonially opened by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the presence of high representatives from the three partner countries. Minister of State for Shipping P Radhakrishnan represented India and Minister of Commerce and Industries Humayoon Rasaw represented Afghanistan.
Mr Rouhani said at the opening ceremony that Iran wanted ‘the routes of the region should be connected on land, sea and air.”
India has always maintained good relations with Iran, and to emphasize them, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had a brief stopover a day before in Teheran to meet her counterpart, Mr Javed Zarif. Chabhar was part of the discussions with both the countries endorsing what the Iranian President had stated.
More than $ One Billion have been spent so far on the development of the port, of which India has paid $ 235 million. India has pledged $ Two Billion for development and infrastructure in Afghanistan, and supplies through to Chabahar will facilitate that effort. Afghanistan has thanked both India and Iran for opening this route.
Mr Rashakrishnan expressed India’s “positive appreciation” of Iran and Afghanistan for the Trilateral Transit and Trade Agreement between the three countries.
While this first phase of Chabahar has been completed, further development of the port will lead to a massive project that can handle a cargo of 80 million tonnes — the existing capacity is just 2.5 million tonnes. This targeted commitment came a month after India sent its first consignment of 110,000tonnes of wheat for Afghanistan through the newly-opened Port on October 29 this year.
Chabahar is about Cooperation, Collaboration and Partnership, a fine example of the times to come for our future generations. And when development marries defence and security needs, it makes Chabahar even more significant. All the three countries are fighting adversaries on multiple fronts and Chabahar should introduce a strong element of mutual cooperation for them. Appropriately, the Iranians say the port project is about Dosti, or Friendship, in the otherwise troubled region.
Chabahar and Gwadar
A comparitive assessment of these two ports is already being made due to their strategic locations, and the methodology of their development projects.
For India, and other countries, the Iranian port is important for two-way trade, particularly facilitating commerce between India, Afghanistan and the region beyond. Chabahar should emerge as a major Sea, Land, Air hub.
Gwadar, located just 171km east in Pakistan, is also a beautiful, deep sea port whose strategic importance was first noted by the US in 1954. Historically, it has belonged to Iran, Afghanistan, India, Greece (Alexander the Great), and Oman just across the nearby strategic Strait of Hormuz. Oman sold Gwadar to Pakistan for USD 1.1 million in 1958 after India declined to buy it with the then Prime Minister Nehru saying it should go to Pakistan due to its geographical congruity.
Gwadar now virtually belongs to China which has purchased 5000 acres around the port there as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and military facilities variously estimated between USD 50 – 100 billion.
Chabahar is 100 percent Iranian with no control on its lands by any foreigner.
Gwadar though is huge. Right now, it is described as a commercial port but with the kind of investments, and China’s declaration to keep sizeable naval presence in the Indian Ocean, naval facilities are bound to come up. Pakistanis are stated to have limited access to the Chinese-owned-or-controlled areas around the port. Officially, the port is designed, funded, developed, built and operated by the Chinese.
Pakistan also has an excellent port in Karachi, but as the city is infested with terrorists and gangsters, even the Chinese shun its use.
Incidentally, during the 1960s and 1970s, when the Shah of Iran militarily supported Pakistan, Islamabad wanted to build a naval base in Chabahar, considering that India would not attack its military assets there in case of hostilities.
Chabahar, Truly Meant for Regional Development
Thanks to Pakistan’s support to terrorists in Afghanistan, and its refusal to allow Afghanistan to import anything from India through the easier and cheaper land route, the non-restrictive Chabahar route is bound to boost trade not only from and with India but also other countries through the established sea lanes. For India, Chabahar is a key for connectivity beyond Pakistan.
It may be recalled that a huge consignment of high-protein biscuits from India, donated in 2005 by the United Nations Food for Work Programme and meant for the malnourished Afghan schoolchildren, unfortunately rotted on the border with Pakistan because of this land route blockage.
Expectedly, at the opening, Mr Rouhani played down the role of Chabahar as a route for anyone to bypass Pakistan or to take on China. He talked of the “positive competition” among ports in the region, expressing the hope that it would bring “more engagement and unity” among the countries in the region. Diplomacy is at work, and rightly so. Pakistan sent a representative to attend the opening ceremony.
The Chabahar port and connectivity projects have been discussed for well over a decade. The first trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan was signed in 2003 after Mr Rouhani, then Iran’s National Security Advisor , discussed it with Prime Minister AB Vajpayee and his NSA, the late Ambassador Brajesh Mishra.
Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed another trilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 2012. The first framework agreement, however, only happened last year with Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushing the process. India had built the 216km Delaram-Zaranj Highway in Afghanistan by 2009, but connecting it to the port had remained undone so far.
Chabahar is important to India, as it is to the other two stakeholders. The free-trade zone around the port can be an important trade centre with West Asia. India can boost iron ore, sugar and rice exports — all top import items for Iran. It could reduce the current account deficit. Reduced transportation costs will allow India to import crude oil, urea and dry fruits at lower prices.
The import cost of oil would reduce manifold; India investing in a fertilizer plant in Iran could potentially save 50 per cent of fertilizer subsidy. Because of easy access to Central Asia, India could realise its plans to set up fertilizer plants in countries like Mongolia.
Because of the Pakistan factor, India has been unable to participate in the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project. Chabahar could be the starting end of an underwater pipeline bypassing Pakistan.
Security of the port and the vessels and personnel it will host will have to be an important factor. After all, it is from Chabahar that a retired Indian naval officer, Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav, who was working post retirement like most Indian and Pakistani military personnel do, was abducted by Pakistani ISI-linked terrorists, and taken to Pakistan
Overall, the spirit of Friendship, or Dosti as it is known in the region, resonates with people in all the three countries and beyond. Chabahar is poised to emerge as the friendly hub that would have maritime, commercial and strategic meanings for India, Iran, Afghanistan and much of Central Asia.
Their interests converge at Chabahar.