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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 24 New Delhi June 4, 2016

Our Chabahar: Where fantasy ends and reality begins

Monday 6 June 2016, by M K Bhadrakumar

Addressing Pakistani think-tankers and the strategic community in Islamabad on May 27, Iran’s ambassador Mehdi Honerdoost disclosed that:

Chabahar was first offered to Pakistan and China (before India came into the picture) but they were disinterested—and the offer is still open.

“Chabahar is not a rival to Gwadar”; on the contrary, Iran sees advantages of a link-up between the two ports that are separated by only 70 kms.

“The (Chabahar) deal is not finished. We (Iran) are waiting for new members. Pakistan, our brotherly neighbour, and China, a great partner of the Iranians and a good friend of Pakistan, are both welcome.”

“We are ready for any rapprochement between regional countries which directly impact the interests of the people of our countries. Trade and business is business, and politics is politics. We should separate them.”

The above remarks become a reality check on the virtues of pragmatism in economic diplomacy. (Dawn)

This is not to decry Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Iran. Without doubt, of all the 25 visits abroad Modi undertook so far, the recent one to Tehran was the most productive. The calibration was commendable, too—no grandstanding, very focused and ultimately productive and satisfying. The fact that the PM took with him Nitin Gadkari, one of the two or three dynamic Cabinet colleagues in his lacklustre government, underlined forcefully that this time around he meant ‘business’.

The fragility of the Indian-Iranian relation-ship was always that civilisational affinities and strategic congruence on regional security issues aside, it was an airy partnership bereft of content other than the oil trade. No strategic partnership can survive on love and fresh air. Thus, compared to the halcyon days in the nineties when there was the shared antipathy toward Pakistan, the atrophy of the relationship was almost inevitable with the American intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 and the commencement of the (tragi-comic) US-Indian dalliance in the Hindu Kush.

Iran is endowed with vast resources and is potentially a very rich country amassing much surplus of capital. And, of course, we are now dealing with an altogether new Iran, which is free from UN sanctions and is raring to integrate with the world market.

The highlight of Modi’s visit was the signing of the documents relating to development of the Chabahar Port with an Indian investment of $ 500 million. Chabahar could offer India a gateway to access the Afghan border up north (once a railway line is completed in the hinterland). Chabahar can also be used to evacuate Iran’s natural gas to India either through an undersea pipeline or as liquefied gas. So far so good.

However, the Iranians probably feel embarrassed that Indians could make crude propaganda stuff out of their Prime Minister’s visit to a friendly country, simply to balance the score-card with Pakistan on the famous spy affair involving Kulbhushan Yadav (who apparently operated out of Chabahar).

The plain-speaking by the Iranian envoy in Islamabad ought to give food for thought. Tehran and Islamabad are working hard on improving their troubled relationship. Pakistan kept distance from the Saudi-led proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, and its cooperation is needed for ending the cross-border terrorism by Wahhabi terror groups destabilising Iran’s eastern Sistan-Baluchistan province. Today, Iran’s policies toward Afghanistan are not Taliban-centric; Iran does not vie with Pakistan for ‘influence’ in Kabul.

Most important, Iran is keen to tap into China’s Silk Road projects in Pakistan. One major project could be the extension of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor leading to China’s Xinjiang province.

Thus, it is easy to understand what Iran’s motivations are in developing the Chabahar Port:

One, Sistan-Baluchistan province is a backward region, which also happens to be Sunni-dominated, where Wahhabbi terror groups supported by Saudi Arabia have been operating from across the Pakistani border. Certainly, economic development of the region is a priority.

Two, Iran needs foreign investments in a big way—and from all available sources.

Three, infrastructure development is a top priority for Tehran and Iran is conscious of its geography offering scope to emerge as a regional economic hub.

Four, Iran is conscious of India’s rapidly growing market and Chabahar enjoys proximity to Kandla and Mumbai ports.

Finally, Iran sees long-term advantages in getting India involved in a big way in its economy as an investor, builder and end-user alike.

We will do well to factor in that China could turn out to be a principal user of Chabahar. In a down-to-earth commentary on May 27, the Chinese Communist Party tabloid, Global Times, pointed out that this is not a zero sum game, and commended India for contributing to ‘regional connectivity’.

Indeed, Chinese factories in Xinjiang and Central Asia will seek to export their products to the Indian market via Chabahar—in which case, Chabahar could eventually end up as a splendid pearl in the necklace of China’s One Belt One Road.

Clearly, the time is overdue for India to take a realistic view of regional connectivity instead of hiding its head in the sand. The Chinese caravan is on a roll in our region. We can’t stop it. The sensible thing is to climb on board and see how far we can use it to our advantage.

For a start, Modi should take away the compass from the hands of the finicky South Block mandarins twiddling with it, and set sail himself on a journey of discovery on China’s Silk Road. Read a Chinese commentary last week, here, on how Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Sri Lanka is a step ahead of us, the regime change in Colombo and our best efforts to be the ‘spoiler’ notwithstanding.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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