Concerns were raised in India over its exclusion by Iran from the 628 km long rail link between Chabahar and Zahidan.
- Iran has since clarified that it is not the case and India could join the project at a later stage.
- It happened just as China and Iran were close to signing a deal on an economic and security partnership.
Significance of Chabahar and the rail link
- Chabahar could provide connectivity for Afghanistan through Iran in order to lessen its dependence on Karachi port.
- This plan has enjoyed support in Delhi, Kabul and Tehran since 2003.
- Road and rail links from Chabahar to Zahidan and then 200 km further on to Zaranj in Afghanistan, need to be built.
Status of the project
- Iran was under sanctions during 2005-13, so there was little progress.
- Meanwhile, India concentrated on the 220 km road to connect Zaranj to Delaram on the Herat highway, and completed it in 2008.
- After the sanctions on Iran eased in 2015, A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed with Iran in 2016.
- This MoU aimed to equip and operate two terminals at the Shahid Beheshti port as part of Phase I of the project.
- The Trilateral Agreement on Establishment of International Transport and Transit Corridor between Afghanistan, Iran and India was signed.
- In addition to $85 million of capital investment, India also committed to providing a line of credit of $150 million for port container tracks.
- Phase I was declared operational in 2018 and India’s wheat shipments to Afghanistan have been using this route.
- A special economic zone (SEZ) at Chabahar was planned but re-imposition of U.S. sanctions has slowed investments into the SEZ.
- India was given a waiver from U.S. sanctions to continue cooperation on Chabahar.
- Despite the waiver, the project has suffered delays.
Growing Iran-China relations
- In 2016, just as sanctions were eased, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Tehran and proposed a long-term comprehensive, strategic partnership.
- Iran kept the negotiations going for years because of reluctance to grow too close to China.
- Meanwhile, tensions in the region have been growing since last year with missile strikes in Saudi Arabia and a U.S. drone strike killing Gen. Qassim Soleimani.
- As a veto-wielding member, China can help Iran at the UNSC.
- Even so, the Iran- China comprehensive, strategic partnership road map has run into opposition in the Majlis[Iranian Parliament].
India’s concerns over Iran-China deal
- What is alarming for New Delhi is that Beijing is also concluding a security and military partnership with Tehran.
- Initial reports in Iran have suggested China will deploy 5,000 security personnel to protect its projects in Iran.
- Some reports suggest Kish Island in the Persian Gulf, located at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, maybe “sold” to China.
- With a growing Chinese presence, India is also concerned about its strategic stakes around the Chabahar port project.
Way forward for India
- Though China has a greater capacity to resist U.S. sanctions, Iran realises the advantage of working with India as it enjoys a sanctions waiver from the U.S. for Chabahar.
- Iran and India also share an antipathy to a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
- This is why Iran would like to keep the door open.
- Nevertheless, India needs to improve its implementation record of infrastructure projects in its neighbourhood.
- There are numerous tales of Indian cooperation projects in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, etc suffering delays and cost overruns that only make it easier for China to expand its footprint in India’s neighbourhood. India should continue to remain politically engaged with Iran so that there is a better appreciation of each other’s sensitivities and compulsions.