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Iran inaugurates extension to Chabahar Port: Project is India’s counterpoise to increasing Chinese control of sea lanes

There is no mistaking the fact that with the inaugration of work on the first phase of Chababhar port in Iran on Sunday, India has sought to neutralise some of the strategic advantages that China had gained in the tug of war with New Delhi for control of the sea lanes. The Gwadar port in Pakistan, which is barely 80 kilometres from Chabahar, was designed to give Beijing and Islamabad that strategic edge after India’s access to Gwadar was denied by design.

If the Chinese in collusion with Pakistan thought that they could choke a vital Indian access to the sea, thereby jeopardising Indian trade especially with Central Asia, the opening of a new strategic transit route to Iran and Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan, would be an effective counter to it.

However, while Iran’s interests have been well catered to by India’s finance for the Chabahar project and the setting up of ancillary industries in and around it, the China-Pakistan link would predictably leave no stone unturned to woo as well as browbeat the Iranians to re-think about the India connection as they have been doing.

Indeed, the Narendra Modi government has committed $500 million to the Chabahar port along with associated roads and rail lines that will crack open a trade and transport route to landlocked Afghanistan, as well as the resource-rich countries of central Asia.

While Chabahar is expected to be fully operational by the end of next year, in what can be compared to a full dress rehearsal, India plans to send seven shipments of wheat to Afghanistan through Chabahar by the end of January. The wheat will be trucked from Chabahar to western Afghanistan. The shipments will put to test the route’s viability and the plan is to broaden the cargo flow before the port is fully operational.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said at Sunday’s inauguration that Iran also plans to link the port to the country’s railroad network to facilitate the transit of goods to neighbouring landlocked Central Asian countries, as well as open a route to eastern and northern Europe through Russia. That would suit India well. Significantly, he downplayed the rivalry with Pakistan in his inauguration speech and said the port will bring “more engagement and unity” among regional countries. That is a facade that has to be maintained.

“We should go after a positive competition,” he said. “We welcome other ports in the region, we welcome Gwadar’s development.”

That the opening of the first phase of Chabahar represents a personal triumph for Modi was clear from his visit to Iran in May 2016, to give a fillip to the project after it was steeped in uncertainty following Chinese moves to scuttle it.

To leave nothing to chance, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj made an unscheduled stopover in Tehran recently on the eve of the port inauguration at which she broke bread with her Iranian counterpart Dr Javad Zarif.

 India’s state-run railway body IRCON International will set up a railway line at Chabahar to move goods right up to Afghanistan. The 500-kilometre rail link between Chabahar and Zahedan will link India to the rest of Iran’s railway network.

To make it adequately attractive for the Iranians, part of the agreement is a free trade zone where a total investment of Rs one lakh crore is envisaged. Indian companies would set up a range of industries from aluminium smelter to urea plants in the region. State-owned NALCO will set up an aluminium smelter while private and co-operative fertiliser firms are keen to build urea plants.

India will also supply $400 million of steel rails to Tehran. There are plans of a fertiliser plant through a joint venture with the Iran government. Securing hydrocarbon sources is a priority for India as New Delhi and Tehran would look to expand the basket in the coming years.

This will also give momentum to the International North-South Transport Corridor of which both India and Iran are initial signatories along with Russia. Iran is the key gateway in this project. It entails the ship, rail, and road routes for moving freight between India, Russia, Iran, Europe and Central Asia. The route primarily involves moving freight from India, Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia. The objective of the corridor is to increase trade connectivity between major cities such as Mumbai, Moscow, Tehran, Baku and Astrakhan.

All in all, with Chinese hegemony getting a big boost as a result of the upcoming China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Chinese assiduously wooing greater trade link-ups with countries in Asia, Africa and Europe, Chabahar offers India a silver lining.

But if those dead set against Chinese control of sea lanes – principally India, Japan, the US and Australia – are to effectively counter the Chinese thrust, it is vital that the US plays a more pro-active role. India will indeed be called upon to play a key role to get the US on board.

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