Syed Ali Zia Jaffery |
India launched a new conduit for trade with Afghanistan when it shipped 1.1 million tons of wheat to Afghanistan from the western seaport of Kandla via Iran’s strategic Chabahar port. The move will witness the use of the port for the first time and would likely have geopolitical ramifications as the port, given its proximity (72km) to the Gwadar port, is widely believed to be an agent for further geopolitical tiffs.
The consignment was sent off by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and her Afghan counterpart Salahuddin Rabbani through a joint video conference. In a statement in relation to the event, Ms. Swaraj called it a landmark. “The shipment of wheat is a landmark moment as it will pave the way for operationalization of the Chabahar port as an alternative, reliable and robust connectivity for Afghanistan.
Will the US oppose Chabahar out of sheer spite for Iran like it is opposing CPEC out of competition with China? The answer to this question may determine how things pan out in the near future.
It will open up new opportunities for trade and transit from and to Afghanistan and enhance trade and commerce between the three countries (India, Iran, and Afghanistan) and the wider region.”
Read more: Chabahar: A new transit route
Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter to congratulate Iran and Afghanistan on what many are calling as a momentous occasion. “I congratulate Afghanistan and Iran on Indian wheat shipment being flagged off from Kandla to Afghanistan through Chabahar,” Modi added that this development opens a new chapter in cooperation and connectivity.
I congratulate Afghanistan & Iran on Indian wheat shipment being flagged off from Kandla to Afghanistan through Chabahar.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) October 29, 2017
This development marks a new chapter in regional cooperation & connectivity.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) October 29, 2017
The development comes on the heels of intense geopolitical strides and activities in the region: the entangled USA is up against the ever-burgeoning China. Russia is relaunching itself in the region, while India as a veritable U.S. ally is spreading its tentacles in Afghanistan, much to the chagrin of Islamabad.
According to watchers and experts, the opening of the Chabahar port is indicative of two things: a firm commitment on part of India to extend support to Afghanistan and the fact that the port will be put into greater use owing to Pakistan’s refusal to allow overland rights.
The US has not denounced the Chabahar port or growing Indo-Iran ties, there is a great deal of worry that the unending animosity between Iran and the US may go on to impede the smooth operation of the Chabahar port.
Writing for The Hindu, senior journalist, Suhasini Haidar said that India turned down Gen. Bajwa’s offer of talks on transit trade with Afghanistan. The 4-star general reportedly offered this to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during his visit to Kabul earlier this month while discussing the renewal of Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) which lapsed in 2015.
“At this, the Pakistani Army Chief offered to talk about the transit trade issues with Indian officials,” said a diplomat privy to the talks, adding that General Bajwa reportedly said, “Ask the Indian side to speak to us and we will try and sort it out.” The India MEA did not see it as a real offer while saying India had little to do with it.
The reported snub shows the level of distrust between India and Pakistan. This is more noteworthy given the fact that U.S. top diplomat, Rex Tillerson also alluded at ways to lessen tensions between the two countries. Last week, Mr. Tillerson said he had told the Pakistani Prime Minister Abbasi and General Bajwa, that his trip was also to “talk about how can we lower the tensions on the border with India.” However, experts are mindful of the fact that Tillerson’s deft diplomacy, despite being much-needed will draw Delhi’s ire.
The opening of the Chabahar port is indicative of two things: a firm commitment on part of India to extend support to Afghanistan and the fact that the port will be put into greater use owing to Pakistan’s refusal to allow overland rights.
However, seemingly India has prepared to trade in spite of overland access. “The two foreign ministers welcomed the fact that this is the first shipment that would be going to Afghanistan through the Chabahar port after Trilateral Agreement on Establishment of International Transport and Transit Corridor was signed during the visit of the Prime Minister of India to Iran in May 2016,” the MEA statement said.
Though the US has not denounced the Chabahar port or growing Indo-Iran ties, there is a great deal of worry that the unending animosity between Iran and the US may go on to impede the smooth operation of the Chabahar port.
Pakistan must not Worry
According to common perceptions, Chabahar port is deemed as a rival to the Gwadar port and hence many are of the of the opinion that Pakistan must be geared against it. However, veteran Pakistani diplomat, Shamshad Ahmad Khan disagrees with the notion. While talking to the author, Khan, bringing his knowledge of Iran into the mix, said that Pakistan must not worry about Indo-Iranian ties. “We had an understanding with Iran of not fussing about each other’s bilateral relations,” said Khan who remained Pakistan Ambassador to Tehran from 1990 to 1992.
The reported snub shows the level of distrust between India and Pakistan. This is more noteworthy given the fact that U.S. top diplomat, Rex Tillerson also alluded at ways to lessen tensions between the two countries.
The former Foreign Secretary said that Chabahar is not and cannot be a counterweight to the Gwadar port while adding that Afghanistan is the real problem with its proclivity of falling prey to other forces before realizing that Pakistan is indispensable to it. Pakistan’s tendency to look at diplomacy with a zero-sum view has compelled it to be wary of Iran. However, Khan pointed out that India can never substitute Pakistan in Iran or Afghanistan, for that matter.
While talking to the author, a prominent former Army Commander of the Indian Army said that after Pakistan’s refusal to give passage, “Indian trade with Afghanistan via Chabahar was inevitable. The former three-star general known as an erudite in military circles further added:”In my view, that is it. Iran follows an independent policy. There is no likelihood of India ever having a military presence in Afghanistan.”
There are question marks on how India will monitor the port after it will be handicapped with a geographical disadvantage. While Pakistan has given considerable control of the Gwadar port to China, Iran may not do the same. Besides, experts also warn against security hazards along the trade route.Moreover, it is poignant to mention that Iran pursues a very independent foreign policy, India does not have the ability to influence Tehran’s divergent views on the region. India, hence cannot see Sunday’s event anything more than trade at this stage. Iran’s worldview, despite being based on fear of foreign domination is not marred by zero-sum mentality, unlike India and Pakistan.
The opening of the port is a perfect example of how states can operate at multiple levels without completely embracing each other.
While CPEC is a flagship of China’s OBOR initiative, it remains to be seen whether the Chabahar port can prove to be a linchpin of robust trade in the region and beyond. How can Chabahar be a rival to Gwadar when Iran itself not only wants to strengthen ties with China but also join CPEC? It will be interesting to see as to how the operationalization of Chabahar will fester the even otherwise fluid environment in the region. Will the US oppose Chabahar out of sheer spite for Iran like it is opposing CPEC out of competition with China? The answer to this question may determine how things pan out in the near future.As of this writing, the US-Iranian tiff and Trump’s inept handling makes the future look dicey.
Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is a Research Analyst and Sub Editor at Global Village Space.He frequently writes on defense and strategic affairs for various national and international platforms. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.