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The intricate deal of Chahbahar port

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By K N Pandita

At a time when India, after a temporary halt, resumed and accelerated work at Chabahar seaport in the Gulf of Oman, the Iranian Foreign Minister gave an intriguing statement that made observers raise an eyebrow. Speaking to the audience at an event in Raisina Dialogue 2021 in the second week of April, Javad Zarif said, ” We have made very clear to our Indian, Chinese friends that Chabahar is open for cooperation for everybody. It is not against China …. is not against Gwadar…..”
In 2015 India agreed to collaborate with Iran in developing Iran’s Chabahar Port and connecting it by a railway line with Afghanistan. Owing to Pakistan’s long hostility, India needed a dependable link with Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan. The link envisaged connectivity with the Central Asian region also.

Historically speaking, India has had friendly relations with Afghanistan; it has substantially contributed to the development of some vital infrastructure in the landlocked country. Even during the years of war and insurgency and at times under serious risk India has not failed to fulfil her commitment to the Afghans.

Prompted by the Pakistan army and its intelligence wing that harbour a political agenda in the war-torn state, the Taliban of strong pro-Pakistan Haqqani group attacked Indian installations and interests several times including the Indian embassy in Kabul with the tacit purpose of scaring the Indians away and destabilizing their outreach in Afghanistan.

In May 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Iran. and signed an agreement pledging USD 500 million for the development of Chahbahar port. An MoU was signed between Indian Railways IRCON and Iranian Railways’ CDTIC for the construction of the Chabahar – Zahedan –Sirakhs (Turkmenistan) railway project covering a distance of 628 km from Chabahar to Zahedan and 1000 km from Zahedan to Sirakhs (Turkmenistan)

Indo-Iran relations have remained overcast by uncertainties and scepticism because of deep tension between the Ayatollah regime in Iran and the United States. US imposition of sanctions on Iran adversely affected India’s oil imports from Iran which were to the tune of one-third of her total oil requirements.

The US was not very happy with India cosying up for the Chabahar development project. Nor were the Saudis and Israelis realistic about India’s energy concerns. However, the US did not stonewall it as was the case with the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline. Thus although the Trump administration allowed India the “Afghanistan Reconstruction” exception from Iranian sanctions, India largely stopped work on the project of rail link until late 2020 while Teheran kept insisting on India to speed up the task.

The independent Congressional Research Service (CRS) recently submitted a 100-page report to the individual Congress lawmakers to take an informed decision on the Chabahar development project in Iran. The report says that “India has accelerated work in early 2021 and the port is expected to be declared operational no later than May 2021.”The report further says, “Iran’s economy is highly integrated into those of its immediate neighbours in South Asia and India cites the UN Security Council resolutions as its guideline for policy towards Iran.” After sanction easement in 2018, India’s oil imports from Iran rose to 800,000 BPD in July 2018. India paid Iran the 6.5 billion dollars it owed for oil purchased during 2012-2016.

It has to be understood that there are cogent reasons for India delaying the completion of Chabahar on one hand and the Chabahar-Zahidan-Sirakhs railway project on the other. As regards Chabahar, although Indian diplomats and mission could manage to obtain some exemption from the US sanctions regime yet the difficulty was that some western countries whom India had approached for specific heavy machinery needed for building ports, were not forthcoming to sell it for use at Chabahar because they would not defy the sanctions on Iran. And about the railway line, the agreement with IRCON stipulated that under the linework like demarcation, earthmoving and surfacing etc. would be done by the Iranian side and upper structure meaning laying the rails, raising station structure, providing all super-structure etc. would be undertaken by the IRCON. However, despite reminders, the Iranian side did not complete the part of the work they were expected to do.

In July 2020, the New York Times revealed that China and Iran were about to sign a major economic, agreement with $280 billion going to the security deal at an important moment “that presents a serious challenge to Indian foreign policy. The immediate end has been the end of the road for the important Chahbahar rail project, which was aimed to open up Indian connectivity to Afghanistan.” International energy media reported that the deal involves Chinese investment in Iran of $400 billion over 25 years, with $280 billion going to the oil and gas sector and the remaining $120 billion to other core sectors of the Iranian economy. China is to get long-term energy contracts plus discounts of more than 30 % and first refusal rights on all major energy projects in Iran.

Growing Sino-Iranian relations have important strategic implications for the entire Gulf region and particularly for India. From a Chinese perspective, Iran could become a key node in the ambitious Belt & Road Initiative of China. Again, China finds Iranian connectivity an alternative to the choked Indo-Pacific passage as a result of US military action. Iran has already hinted that Chabahar is not opposed to China but more than that Iran has not hidden the ambition of linking up Chabahar with Gwadar along the Makran coast already developed by China.

Not only that. China and Iran are envisaging deepening of bilateral cooperation in military and intelligence spheres which includes weapons developmentas well. Two new Iranian ports adjacent to the Strait of Hormuz, through which Iranian oil will flow to China are also under contemplation for development. Keeping in mind the closeness between the two countries, it is but natural that the Iranian Foreign Minister had to give a cart blanch to China in his Raisina Dialogue 2021 In New Delhi. We should not overlook that there has been opposition to the 25-year deal not only in Teheran but in other major towns of Iran. Among the prominent critics of the deal are former President Ahmadinejad and the outstanding religious leader Matahari. Some have called the deal a “sell-out to China and akin to the Turkmenchay deal with Russia in which the Kajar rulers had ceded Southern Caucasus to Russia.”

In political circles the debate goes on that because of US sanctions, Iran has fallen into the lap of China. Her economy is not strong and she is feeling the sting of isolation and would like to wriggle out of it. President Biden did indicate that talks on the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (14 July 2015) could be held but Iran put the pre-condition of withdrawal of sanctions for any dialogue. Thus a stalemate persists.

Chabahar port and related overland connectivity have been under India’s consideration as early as 2003. But aware of strained relations between Iran and the US in the aftermath of the Iranian Islamic Revolution India had many reservations. The US openly opposed the IPI gas pipeline project although India had remained undecided on the issue of cost production as well as that of security of the pipeline passing through Pakistan territory. Indo-Iran relations have remained in the doldrums first owing to US sanctions on Iran and their consequences on a global level and second because of Iran’s intrinsic capricious behaviour.

India envisaged Chabahar a major trade and connectivity hub on Iran’s coast that would give her an alternative route to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan. But more importantly, in the words of a commentator, “Chahbahar port has the potential to provide an Indian strategic counter to Pakistan’s Gwadar port being developed by China. The Chinese trade zone could be an important weigh station for India’s energy imports and food and material exports from Kandla and Mundra ports. The railway would give an independent corridor not only to Afghanistan but also to Central Asia and Russia.”

The ground situation demands that India play a deft role in forging an equitable balance of interest in the Persian Gulf region which is of immense strategic importance to both world trade and world security. Without putting the Quad interaction into any jeopardy, Indian diplomacy must put its front foot forward and help reduce Iran-US misapprehensions germane to ushering in an era of peace and development for the region. Care has to be taken that in the context of Chahbahar, Iran-India friendship should not become the source of collateral damage in a large proxy war between the US and China.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre for Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University, Srinagar).

Whose baby is the Tehreek-i-Labbaik?

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By K.N. Pandita

The anarchy and bedlam let loose by the extremist right-wing party Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) in Lahore and other major cities in Pakistan is the reward deservingly offered to the politicians of Pakistan. It is a stunning example of Frankenstein. Continue Reading…

Are we heading towards ‘Asian NATO’?

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By K N Pandita

The Quad is an offspring of the US’ Indo-Pacific security, under contemplation for quite some time at various levels of the US think-tanks. The perception received a boost during the Trump administration when relations between Washington and Beijing soured. Continue Reading…

Pakistani peacenik warriors: Changing strategy not heart

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By K.N. Pandita

General Bajwa says India and Pakistan must live in peace and dialogue is the only way. In recent months this is the third time he has spoken of peace in the region. It sounds bizarre. The army that initiated three wars with India with the fourth an ongoing proxy war believing that it has to inflict a thousand cuts on the body of India, wants to abandon war and seeks peace. Is this posture real or fake? Continue Reading…

Sub-continent in the grip of disquiet

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By K N Pandita

Three countries of the Indian sub-continent – India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan – are bogged with grim disquiet whose roots lie in the exclusivist beliefs of the Islamic State of Pakistan. After actively stoking the embers of Theo-fascism for more than three decades, the deep State finds that at the end of the day the flames are engulfing it. Continue Reading…

Pakistan struggles for Pan-Islamic bloc

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By K N Pandita

How the Biden administration will deal with Pakistan is not an immediate concern for policy planner in Islamabad: their real concern is how the divided Islamic world patches up and agrees to stand behind her for realizing the Kashmir dream. Pakistan foreign minister’s jaunts to some West Asian countries and the statements emanating from the host as well as the visitor, both, are clear indications that Pakistan wants to mend the fence and bridge the chasm not really for bringing peace and prosperity to Muslims but to garner the support of Islamic radicals for grabbing the entire region of Kashmir. She wants the ummah to believe that Pakistan’s struggle is Islam centric whereas actually, it is Kashmir centric. Continue Reading…

A new phase in Himalayan border strategy

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K N Pandita

Reporting that the embattled commanders of India and China in Ladakh have agreed to disengagement of troops at the Pangong Tso watershed, the Hindustan Times of 16 February quoted an official source making a cryptic remark which no policy planner can afford to ignore. The commentator had said that the speed at which China has moved back its armoured units is not only surprising but it also shows their capacity to deploy the tanks and heavy vehicles again. Continue Reading…

Momentous farewell to veteran parliamentarian

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By K N Pandita

Rajya Sabha or the Upper House of the Parliament witnessed an unprecedented event of momentous farewell given to Ghulam Nabi Azad, the leader of the opposition (Cong), who along with his other three co-parliamentarians will be retiring after completing their tenure next week. Continue Reading…

Farmers’ strike ends in a fiasco

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By K N Pandita

That the 53-day strikes by the farmers ended in a fiasco did not spring a surprise to anybody with an understanding of the democratic arrangement of our politics and the astute manner in which the government handled the situation. During the long period of the strike there surfaced numerous occasions where people began to apprehend a physical lash likely to take shape. Continue Reading…

India and China: the “diplomacy of strings”

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By K N Pandita

Last week, a news item in Hindustan Times disclosed that our Defence Ministry would be doing a mega joint exercise in the Andaman Sea. The contingents of Indian Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Coast Guard are to take part in the drills. IAF’s Jaguar maritime strike aircraft, transport aircraft, destroyers, anti-submarine warfare corvettes, amphibious warships with ship-borne helicopters among others will take part in the exercise. Continue Reading…

Pakistan’s expectations from Biden admin

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By K N Pandita

Prime Minister Modi’s farewell message to Donald Trump on the conclusion of the latter’s last visit to India was “ab ki bar Trump sarkar”. The wish did not come true. It is a stark reminder that the results of democratic elections are unpredictable. Continue Reading…

Fast-tracking of Indo-Pacific partnership

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By K N Pandita

The Eurasian Times of 17 January reported de-classification of a US highly confidential ten-page report prepared by Assistant Secretary Robert C O’ Brian which, among other things, highlights the importance of India in the US’ Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific as the Trump Administration’s overarching strategic guidance for implementing the President’s 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) within the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region. Continue Reading…

A new chapter in India-Saudi relations

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By K N Pandita

In his six-day-long (9 – 14 December 2020) visit to the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Army Chief, General MM Naravane was given a red carpet reception by the hosts as it was the first visit of any Indian Army Chief to the two strategically important countries in the Gulf region. In both countries, the Commander met and interacted with his counterparts and other top military and civilian brass besides visiting some of their prestigious defence establishments. The itinerary of the General’s engagements in the two countries shows the importance attached to the visit. Continue Reading…

Farmers’ strike has notable lessons

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By K.N. Pandita

The recent strike by sections of Punjab-Haryana farmers may not arguably pass for a nationwide strike. Nevertheless, some political opposition parties and those with vested interest tried to expand the strike to other states as well. Thus behind the cover of farmers’ protest, these political parties have been trying to challenge the sovereignty of the Parliament. It is politics of disruption and not of nation-building. However, notwithstanding its geophysical aspects, we should not shy away from making a dispassionate analysis of the upsurge because for more than one reason it is a notable event in the contemporary political history of India. Continue Reading…

South Asian conundrum- strategies and statesmanship

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By K N Pandita

China made a grave miscalculation in opening front against India in the Eastern Ladakh. It shows that PLA has turned into a typecast unable to keep pace with the dynamics of changing world order. Her intrusive economic ventures globally have induced many developed countries in the West to look for the protection and perpetuation of their commercial wellbeing. Continue Reading…

Muslim tirade against French President

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By K.N. Pandita

Last week saw a widespread outburst of the people in many Muslim countries against the President of French Republic Mr Emmanuel Macron. In certain cases like Pakistan, the mobs after Friday prayers became uncontrollable and turned violent so much so that the authorities had to deploy riot force to control the unruly mobs. Continue Reading…

Supreme Court verdict on Shaheen Bagh lockdown

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By K.N. Pandita

The verdict of the Apex Court in a petition filed by BJP MLA Nand Kishore Garg has mostly focused on the constitutional and administrative aspects of the last winter’s Shaheen Bagh sit-down agitation that had caused great inconvenience to the public in a crowded part of the capital for a long time. The sit-down strike ended in March last and the verdict has come seven months later. The long time gap is reflective of rather low priority with which the Apex Court treated the matter. Continue Reading…

Isn’t the dragon getting oversized?

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By K N Pandita

Expansionism by force and by treachery is China’s well-known forte. If the originator of the chain-Hindi Bhai Bhai naiveté became its hopeless victim, bring not the onus to the doorsteps of China. The great lessons that India learnt from the 1962 debacle are primarily twofold. One is the bitter truth that “power flows from the barrel of the gun”, and the second is that “the internal enemy is far more dangerous than the external one” more so when the latter is patently in cahoots with the enemy. Continue Reading…

A tiny lamp versus the tempest

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By K.N. Pandita

If Kangana Ranaut’s critical statement hurt anybody or any institution, the right thing to do was to make her judicially answerable on refusing to apologize. In no case, it warranted taking the law into one’s hand. This country has to be ruled by the law of the land and not the jungle law. Continue Reading…

Iran in new regional alignment

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By K.N. Pandita

CIA overplayed capitalist hegemonic role in Iran during the Iranian oil nationalization movement under Dr Mussadegh in the 1950s. Thereafter Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, inexperienced in national politics and regional diplomacy, failed to interact with the Iranian Left, the Jibbeh-e-Milli and also the Iranian clergy, both opposed to the monarchical rule. Some self-seeking intransigence political leaders who emerged from time to time hardly enjoyed popularity with any solid constituency in Iran. Though the Left was suppressed but not eliminated. The clergy expanded their influence fairly well in rural Iran. Continue Reading…