The Chabahar port: A potential game changer for Afghanistan
The announcement by the Indian government on 7 January of its takeover of operations of a part of Shahid Beheshti port at Chabahar in Iran is a significant development that has the potential to impact the regional dynamics and, importantly, transform Afghanistan’s engagement with the rest of the world. As the statement of the Indian government puts it, "This step marks the beginning of a long journey. India has written a history with its engagement in Chabahar and is now leading the regional cooperation and joint efforts to support land locked Afghanistan. This is the first time India will be operating a port outside its territories".
Located at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman in the southern Sistan-Balochistan province of Iran, Chabahar is Iran’s only deep-sea port. It provides direct access to the Indian Ocean while skirting the narrow Strait of Hormuz. Only about 80 km from Gwadar, the Pakistani port that is being operated by China and forms an important component of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Chabahar is a strategically important port. In addition, it has the potential to serve an important North – South link. Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan can gain access to the Arabian Sea, and trade from India and the Middle-East can be transported northward from Chabahar through Eurasia into Russia.
Chabahar’s primary importance, though, lies in the alternate access to the sea it provides to land-locked Afghanistan. The country is presently in the unenviable position of being at the mercy of its eastern neighbor, Pakistan, for all its sea-borne external trade. Afghanistan has publicly, vehemently and repeatedly accused Pakistan of promoting violence and instability in Afghanistan.
There are two main ports in Chabahar – the Shahid Kalantari port and the Shahid Beheshti port. The former was developed in the 1980s. Development of Shahid Beheshti port was proposed to be done in five phases commencing in 2007, but progress was stalled due to the United Nations (UN) sanctions on Iran that continued till 2016. It was only after the sanctions were lifted that work on the port began in earnest.
In 2003, the then Iranian President Seyed Mohammad Khatami, had offered India the project of developing the Shahid Beheshti port. The offer was well received by India, which saw the port as an enticing access-point to Afghanistan. Pakistan’s bar on use of its territory by India to access Afghanistan was a major impediment to India’s efforts at contributing more extensively towards promoting peace and prosperity in the war-torn country. However, the aforementioned sanctions intervened to ensure that not much progress was actually made on Khatami’s offer until a few years ago.
During Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Tehran in May 2016, a formal ten-year contract for ‘Equipping and Operating the Chabahar Port’ was signed between the two countries. The contract stipulated that India would build a 600-metre cargo terminal and a 640-metre container terminal, and would equip and operate two terminals with five berths at the Shahid Beheshti port. This was followed by a formal short-term contract between the two countries signed during Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to India in May 2018. Meanwhile, in May 2016 Iran, India and Afghanistan also signed a trilateral transit agreement in Tehran, a part of which is dedicated to the Chabahar port development project.
Iran plans to turn the Chabahar port into a transit hub for immediate access to markets in the Indian Ocean and in Central Asia and thereby earn much needed revenue in the form of transit fees. India’s overriding motivation in investing in the Chabahar project is linking directly to Afghanistan and freeing it of its exclusive dependence on Pakistan for access to the sea. For New Delhi, enhancing connectivity with Kabul is the key to sustaining its multi-dimensional engagement in long-term capacity building in the war-torn nation. Overcoming its dependence on Islamabad is also a key foreign policy priority for Afghanistan. As Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s Chief Executive, put it, “Afghanistan used to rely only on one transit road, which was through Karachi. That is not the case anymore. Now it is also through Chabahar”. Afghan Analyst, Sameem Habibi also echoed the mood in Afghanistan when he wrote that “More than half of Afghanistan’s goods and services are transited and shipped through Karachi Port that has also been used as a political means by Pakistani government to pressure and impose its demands on Afghanistan for decades. I personally consider this (Chabahar port) as one of the biggest achievements in the region particularly to our country which has been under of a lot of pressure from despotic Pakistani governments since its creation in 1947. Let’s hope and pray that this great achievement is not disrupted or distorted by our enemies, especially Pakistan, the country that has never wanted us to improve or live in peace and stability”.
In all, India has committed $500 million for the Chabahar port complex and $235 million for the port expansion project. It also plans to invest $1.6 billion to build an over 500-km long rail link between Chabahar and Zahedan in Iran, which will then be extended to Zaranj in Afghanistan. India has already built the Zaranj-Delaram highway in Afghanistan over four years (2005-2009), despite the project and its workers being subjected to repeated Pakistan-linked terrorist attacks in which six Indians and over 100 Afghan workers were killed. The Zaranj-Delaram highway links to Afghanistan's Garland Highway that connects all of the four major cities of the country, Herat, Kandahar, Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. Iran, meanwhile, has developed the land route from Chabahar to Zahedan and further north to Milak close to Zaranj in Afghanistan.
Saurabh Kumar, the outgoing Indian Ambassador to Iran, in an interview with the Ports and Maritime Organization's news portal, recently said that “Chabahar port has strategic significance in terms of providing Afghanistan an alternative access to the sea. This is critical for long-term development, and peace and stability in that country. The port also provides connectivity to Central Asia, as well as, contributes to the development of a relatively less developed region of Iran”.
Chabahar port will boost India's access to the proposed 7,200 km long International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that envisages sea, rail and road routes between Russia, Eurasia, Central Asia, Iran and India. A ministerial-level meeting of Iran, India and Russia for implementation of the INSTC was held in Russia on 23 November. Mohammad Eslami, Iran's Minister Roads and Urban Development, informed that Russia has decided to open a €3 billion credit line to finance the INSTC. Russia is also looking to put in place a connectivity corridor involving India and Oman through Iran.
The energy rich Central Asian States of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan are also keen on expanding trade ties with India. This is reflected in the fact that these five Central Asian States are slated to hold their first joint foreign ministerial meeting with India on 12 and 13 January in Samarkand in Uzbekistan. Significantly, Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani is also expected to join the meeting. The State-run media of Turkmenistan reported that the main aim of the meeting is to expand cooperation and development of contacts in the political-diplomatic, trade-economic, scientific-technological and cultural-humanitarian spheres. Almost all the Central Asian States also seek more robust defense ties with India, and India’s growing financial clout has made it an attractive power to engage with. Chabahar is, therefore, likely to figure prominently in the discussions as a possible solution to the absence of direct land and sea routes from India to Central Asia and Eurasia.
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, meanwhile, are also seeking to establish a presence at Chabahar port. Kazakhstan plans to connect to the Gujarat state of India via Iran. India was recently admitted to the Ashgabat Agreement on the establishment of an International Transport and Transit Corridor between Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and it is also negotiating with the Eurasian Economic Union to enter the market in the Eurasian region.
An oft-repeated view in the media on India’s involvement in the Chabahar port is that it is in response to China’s investment in the CPEC. This is misleading, as Indian interest in developing the port in furtherance of its strategic interests, as also those of Afghanistan, predates the CPEC by a decade and a half. The nature of the two projects is also diametrically different, and they reflect the contrasting worldviews and values of China and India. Firstly, the Chabahar port and its related connectivity projects are all above board in their legality. Despite its strategic significance, the Chabahar project was considerably delayed by India on account of its firm adherence to the UN sanctions that were in place. Secondly, all elements of the Chabahar project involve the participation of sovereign States that respect the territorial integrity of other States. Thirdly, India’s primary aim in the Chabahar project is to aid an ailing friendly country, Afghanistan, and although India does stand to gain financially and in terms of influence in Central Asia in the long run, such potential gains are viewed more as a corollary by India.
In contrast, China is undertaking the CPEC in contravention of international laws and norms as a large part of the project passes through the Gilgit Baltistan region of the erstwhile princely State of Jammu & Kashmir. India lays legal claim to Gilgit Baltistan, and its claim is founded on weighty historical facts. As Vijay Gokhale, India’s Foreign Secretary, pointed out, physical connectivity across nations can only sustain itself in a common and universally applicable rules-based world order. He said: "Such an order must uphold sovereignty, territorial integrity and equality of all nations. All nations must respect their international commitments”.
Further, China’s intention in undertaking the CPEC, which is becoming more visible as its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) engulfs an increasing number of susceptible victims, is to enrich itself while burdening the economies of countries it calls friends with unviable debts for later exploitation by way of extracting strategic concessions. To quote Gokhale again, "connectivity efforts in the region must be based on principles of economic viability and financial responsibility. They should promote economic activity and not place nations under irredeemable debt burden. All connectivity initiatives must follow universally recognized international norms, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality... They should promote trade, not tension".
The Chabahar port, in the long run, has the potential to benefit all stakeholders in the region. Given the political and economic turmoil that the country has endured for decades, the gains for Afghanistan could be the steepest. However, the political and security situation that prevails in the country in the next few years, especially in the backdrop of reports of the impending United States troop withdrawal, would be the determining factor in how steep the gains actually are.