Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced on Tuesday that Tehran had offered Pakistan and China to participate in India’s Chabahar project. The Chabahar port, which is being developed by India was to strategically contest the Gwadar port in Pakistan, which is being operated by the Chinese. The port in Chabahar is strategically important for two primary reasons. One, to make way for India to surpass Pakistan and second to have easy trade access in the region.
The Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif offered Pakistan and China to participate in the Chabahar port project while he was on his three-day bilateral tour to Pakistan. The Government of India is yet to respond to the development and the Indian officials are waiting to hear more from Iran about the issue. Pakistan’s concern about increasing Indian involvement in Chabahar was amplified after India, Iran, and Afghanistan signed a trilateral agreement in 2016 to jointly develop the port of Chabahar. In an effort to ease Pakistan’s worry, Iran’s FM Zarif said that Chabahar was not to “encircle Pakistan…strangulate anybody”.
What is Chabahar Port?
The Chabahar is a strategically located port in Sistan and Baluchestan Province that opens trade routes to Central Asia. India’s interest in the port dates back to 1990s, as it wanted to gain trade access to Afghanistan. With Hassan Rouhani inaugurating the port on December 3rd, 2017, India’s dream of partnering with Iran was a success. Chabahar is important for India for trade and connectivity purposes. With India completing the construction of the Zaranj-Delaram highway in Afghanistan, it can now access port in Iran to reach Afghanistan and avoid depending on Pakistan to gain access to Afghanistan.
The Chabahar port also serves India as one of the most important geo-strategic locations in the region. China’s expansionist policies and spreading its tentacles in Pakistan using CPEC and Gwadar, has not been in good interest with regard to India. With the opening of Chabahar port in Iran, India wishes to contest the Chinese domination in the region. The port could also push the Indian influence in the region and act as a buffer to the link the North-South Transport Corridor along Russia and Europe. This is also a counter to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.
Implications of Iran’s offer to China and Pakistan to join Chabahar port project
“This no surprise as China already has several investments and military ties with Iran”, says Jabin T Jacob, Fellow at Institute of Chinese Studies. He further tells FE Online that the Chinese also have some presence in Chabahar and it is no surprise that they would want to increase their presence. And for the Iranians, the more players in Chabahar, the greater the chances for its success.
It is highly unlikely that the motive behind Iran was to upset India by this offer. It is perhaps why officials in India have not made any statements yet. “It is not clear as to what exactly is the offer. We do not know whether it exclusive or not”, says Harsh V Pant, Head of Strategic Studies at ORF. But, since India is already operating at Chabahar, India would be in a position to negotiate terms and conditions of Iran’s offer to Pakistan and China.
The port at Gwadar in Pakistan is just around 60 miles away from Chabahar in Iran. In an economic point of view, Pakistan’s involvement in Chabahar would be vain given the extreme proximity between the two ports. Speaking to Financial Express, defense expert Sushant Sareen said that China already has a lot of investments in Iran and it is also important to understand that the Chabahar port is only for trade and connectivity. He also observed that it is, in fact, Iran’s well-versed diplomacy that is at play here and said that, India needs to take the development with a pinch of salt.