Modi’s Chabahar ‘pivot’


WEB DESK: The first visit by an Indian prime minister to Iran for 15 years has yielded rich dividends in terms of a trilateral series of agreements amongst India, Iran and Afghanistan regarding the development of Chabahar port and a railway line to connect it to Zahedan.

India will provide $500 million for the purpose and hundreds of millions of dollars more for cooperation in trade, energy, and industries such as aluminium, steel, petrochemicals, etc. Iran’s oil and gas industries will be at the heart of this bilateral cooperation. This, in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s view, will see Iranian oil and gas exchanged for India’s mineral wealth and industrial expertise. But the benefits will not be confined to bilateral advantage. Chabahar port and the rail and road link planned to Afghanistan will offer the latter an alternative route to its present exclusive dependence on Pakistan.

The opening to Afghanistan will further allow interconnectivity with Central Asia and beyond, all the way to Europe eventually. The project not only frees Afghanistan and Central Asia from exclusive reliance on the Pakistan route, it affords India, which is said to be mulling investing $15 billion in the Chabahar Economic Zone by building gas and urea plants, an opportunity to increase its influence in the Indian Ocean (Chabahar is the only Iranian port with direct access to the Ocean) in particular.

China is offering $46 billion for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in a potentially game-changing revival of the historical Silk Route, which will provide China’s relatively less developed western regions a shorter and more convenient route to the sea through the Gwadar port, while laying the foundations for regional and international interconnectivity thereby on a hitherto undreamt of scale. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was visibly delighted at the three-way transit agreement. India too has cause for satisfaction. Both countries have issues, however less cogent, with Pakistan re trade transit rights, India probably by now despairing of getting trade access to Afghanistan (and beyond) through Pakistan.

Apart from the obvious advantages to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia, the Chabahar project will, like the CPEC, trigger substantial investment and business activity along its route. In that sense, the former may be considered a quick, clever by India, Iran and Afghanistan to the latter. To seal the deal and make it even sweeter, India last week cleared $750 million of the $ six billion debt to Iran that was held up for years because of the nuclear-related sanctions against Iran.

In January 2016, Tehran came to an agreement on the nuclear issue with its international interlocutors, leading to the lifting of sanctions. India and the rest of the world have since been making a beeline to Tehran to get in on the economic windfall represented by an Iranian market emerging from isolation. Insofar as the stalled Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project is concerned, Pakistan is required to take stock of the situation in an effective and meaningful manner. It needs to revisit arguments such as Petroleum Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s, who says we are unable to complete the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline on our side (it is already complete on the Iranian side) because financing for the $ two billion project is hard to come by for fear of the ‘snap back’ clause in the nuclear agreement that could see sanctions being reimposed if Iran reneges on its commitments.

When Iranian President Rouhani visited Pakistan not so long ago, the anticipation was the gas pipeline and many other projects of importance would be signed. Unfortunately, however, the story of an Indian spy based in Iran being captured in Pakistan put paid to any such hopes. Our wise policymakers must not, therefore, lose sight of the fact that prudence is greater virtue than wisdom.- Business Recorder