India takes over Iran's strategic Chabahar port

India Monday (Dec 25, 2018) formally took over operations at Iran's strategic Chabahar Port, a move that, observers believe, could have significant geopolitical ramifications in the region.

The port on the Indian Ocean, inaugurated last year, is being built largely by India and is expected to provide a key supply route for Afghanistan while allowing India to bypass rival Pakistan to trade with Central Asia.

Tellingly, the U.S. State Department in November exempted the Chabahar Port project from sanctions in recognition of its importance to landlocked Afghanistan.

“After extensive consideration, the Secretary has provided for an exception from the imposition of certain  sanctions with respect to the development of Chabahar Port and the construction of an associated railway and for the shipment of non-sanctionable goods through the Port for Afghanistan,” a state department spokesperson said in a statement to the Hindustan Times in November.

Since its inauguration last year, we have shipped about 110 thousand metric tons of much-needed wheat and 2,000 metric tons of pulses from India to Afghanistan through this port,” Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale had said at a conference in New Delhi Delhi recently.

“To tap its full potential for benefit of Afghanistan, we might also need to pursue the development of a rail line from Chabahar to Zahedan at some future stage,” he had added.

Zahedan is also in Iran but closer to the Afghanistan border.

According to Hindustan Times, New Delhi has poured $2 billion into development in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban's government.

The Iranian port of Chabahar does more than provide India an alternative route into landlocked Afghanistan. It also gives Central Asia an opening to a sea route in the Gulf. To India’s East, the Bay of Bengal and beyond that South East Asia comprise the core of Indian Act East Policy. India is the largest littoral in the Bay of Bengal and connectivity with Southeast Asia is both by land and sea.

“Only 72 kilometers from the Chinese-backed, Pakistani port of Gwadar , the project is seen as a strategic play to limit the influence China seeks to gain and wield through its Belt and Road Initiative,” Harsh V Pant, professor of international relations, King’s College London says adding:

“The India-Iran relationship remains constrained due to Iran’s openness to Pakistani and Chinese participation in the development of Chabahar. U.S.-Iran uncertainty and instability in Afghanistan complicate the intended benefits of the project still further.”

The first phase of the strategic Chabahar port was inaugurated in December 2017 by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the presence of officials from 17 countries.

On October 29, 2017, India flagged off the first shipment of wheat bound for Afghanistan via Iran’s Chabahar Port, in which India is a key developer.

To borrow Prof. Pant again, Chabahar is important to India, both as a stepping stone to become a larger regional infrastructure developer, but also to help drive trade and aid to Afghanistan. “Despite these important drivers in Delhi, the project has not proceeded smoothly, and there could be further bumps ahead as India tries to balance cooperation with Iran, its relations with the United States and Israel, and fend off regional challenges from China and Pakistan.”

Strategic location of Chabahar

Chabahar port sits only 72 kilometers from Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, which is being developed with Chinese investment. This proximity is viewed as another sign of strategic competition between India and China in the region. The Chabahar port project is important to India’s larger geostrategic ambition that aims to limit China-Pakistan cooperation while expanding New Delhi’s influence beyond South Asia, says Pant.

Chabahar is 950 kilometers away from the Milak border crossing on the Afghan border and 768 nautical miles from India’s Mumbai port.

Chabahar is vital for both India and Iran to realize their ambition of reducing dependency on the Suez Canal for transporting cargo to Europe, according to Prof. Pant.

Other players

Tehran has assured Islamabad that it would not allow Delhi or any other country to use Chabahar against Pakistan, according to Prof Pant. “Iran doesn’t want Pakistan to overtly shift to the Saudi Arabia-led regional bloc evolving in the Middle East and it has even dangled the possibility of Pakistan joining the project at some future date.”

In May 2016, the same year in which India signed the historic trilateral accord with Iran and Afghanistan to cooperate on the Chabahar port project, Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan, Mehdi Honerdoost, categorically stated that the Chabahar deal is not finished, nor is it limited to just three partner countries. Mehdi commented, “The deal is not finished. We are waiting for new members. Pakistan, our brotherly neighbours and China, a great partner of the Iranians and a good friend of Pakistan, are both welcome.” In fact, the Chinese firm Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Co. Ltd. (ZPMC) won the auction for supplying cranes to India Ports Global Private Limited (IPGPL), which is developing the Chabahar project.

Iran may find it difficult to leave China out of the Chabahar project, Prof Pant argues and says: “China is the largest foreign investor in Iran, filling the vacuum left by Western nations in recent decades. Moreover, China has successfully completed a number of infrastructure projects in Iran including the Tehran metro, and is providing $1.5 billion for the electrification of the Tehran-Mashhad railway line through its EXIM bank. Both China and Iran announced in 2016 their intent to expand bilateral trade to $600 billion. This is complemented by the fact that China has more experience than India in successfully undertaking overseas infrastructure projects.”

Chabahar is seen as India’s first major overseas port venture and is seen as a counter to China’s development of the Gwadar port in Pakistan and One Belt One Road initiative.

India opposes China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative

India boycotted China's Belt and Road Forum (BRF) held in Beijing in May 2017 by saying that India cannot accept a project that ignores its core concern on sovereignty and territorial integrity.

India has strong reservation over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of China's prestigious 'Belt and the Road Initiative' (BRI). The CPEC passes through Gilgit and Baltistan of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir (PcK). India treats the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir as its integral part, including the PcK.

External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Gopal Baglay said in a statement:

"Regarding the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor , which is being projected as the flagship project of the BRI/OBOR, the international community is well aware of India s position. No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity.

"We are developing multi-modal linkages with Myanmar and Bangladesh; under our Go West strategy, we are engaged with Iran on Chabahar Port and with Iran and other partners in Central Asia on International North South Transport Corridor.”

India has objection to the 3,000 km long CPEC project connecting Pakistan's deep-water port Gwadar and China’s Xinjiang stem from the fact that Gwadar, which was taken over by the Chinese, will become a future naval base.

The Gwadar port across the waters from Mumbai s port housing the Indian Navy s western naval command provides a berth for China in the Arabian Sea and to the Indian Ocean.

China’s One Belt One Road initiative

China’s One Belt One Road initiative, or OBOR, hopes to link more than 65 countries, encompassing up to 40 percent of global GDP. It aims linking China to Asia, Europe and Africa via an ambitious network of ports, roads, rail and other infrastructure projects. Beginning in China's Fujian province, the projected Maritime Silk Route passes through the Malacca Strait to the Indian Ocean, moving along the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, ending in Venice.

The scale and scope of OBOR is huge, with at least $1 trillion in investments. At the Shanghai summit, Xi announced an additional $124 billion in funding for OBOR, including $8.7 billion in assistance to developing countries.

China hosted heads of 29 states and governments to participate in the May 2017 Roundtable of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation,including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, Russian President Vladimir Putin and United Nations chief Antonio Guterres. Most western leaders sent representatives.

The West claims that this as a Chinese bilateral project being touted a multilateral venture. The outgoing president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China says that the OBOR has “been hijackedby Chinese companies, which have used it as an excuse to evade capital controls, smuggling money out of the country by disguising it as international investments and partnerships.”

The rest of the world is more receptive. Lavishing praise on China for the OBOR initiative while targeting the US, Putin warned at the summit that “protectionism is becoming the new normal,” adding that the “ideas of openness and free trade are increasingly often being rejected (even) by those who until very recently expounded them.”

List of Beijing Forum attendees

May 13, 2017, Roundtable of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing was attended by 16 Presidents, 11 Prime Ministers as well as the UN Secretary General, the World Bank President and the IMF Managing Director:

President Xi Jinping of China, President Mauricio Macri of of Argentina, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, President Michelle Bachelet Jeria of Chile, President Milos Zeman of Czech Republic, President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, President Almazbek Atambayev of Kyrgyz Republic, President Bounnhang Vorachith of Laos, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte of Philippines, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, President Doris Leuthard of Switzerland, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, President Tran Dai Quang of Viet Nam, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn of of Ethiopia, Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama of Fiji, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece, Prime Minister Orbán Viktor of Hungary, Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy, Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, Prime Minister Jargaltulgyn Erdenebat of Mongolia, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, Prime Minister Beata Szydło of Poland, Prime Minister and President-elect Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia, President of the Government Mariano Rajoy Brey of Spain, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of Sri Lanka, Secretary General Antonio Guterres of the United Nations President Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank Group and Managing Director Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America ( email: asghazali2011 (@)