Gulf port deal re­veals Asian ri­val­ries

In­dia and Iran out­flank Pak­istan

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

A lit­tle-no­ticed deal last month be­tween In­dia and Iran to de­velop an ob­scure port in the Gulf of Oman is of­fer­ing a glimpse into just how dra­mat­i­cally last sum­mer’s Ira­nian nu­clear ac­cord stands to up­end South Asia’s geopo­lit­i­cal dy­nam­ics — as New Delhi pushes to ex­pand its in­flu­ence in nearby Afghanistan, out­flank ri­val Pak­istan and chal­lenge Chi­nese dom­i­nance in the re­gion.

In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani and Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani were all smiles at an un­usual gath­er­ing in Tehran, where Mr. Modi pledged bil­lions to de­velop Iran’s south­east­ern Chaba­har port and help es­tab­lish a free trade zone stretch­ing to­ward the Iran-Afghan bor­der dur­ing the coming years.

News of the deal prompted a wary re­ac­tion from some in Wash­ing­ton, amid con­cern that sanc­tions re­lief un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion-backed nu­clear ac­cord with Iran last year has paved the way for a key U.S. ally to align it­self with Wash­ing­ton’s main ad­ver­sary in the re­gion.

But most South Asia ex­perts say New Delhi re­mains firmly com­mit­ted to its grow­ing se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion with the U.S., and that its deal­ings with Iran are be­ing mo­ti­vated mainly by a de­sire to open a vast new trade link be­tween a key In­dian in­dus­try hub and the land­locked na­tions of Cen­tral Asia — with­out in­clud­ing ri­val Pak­istan.

Iran’s Chaba­har port, lo­cated on the north­ern side of the Gulf of Oman, sits less than 600 miles from western In­dia’s ex­port pow­er­house of Gu­jarat state, where Mr. Modi served as chief min­is­ter for more than a decade prior to his elec­tion as prime min­is­ter in 2014.

It’s a long-stalled deal that has eco­nomic, di­plo­matic and se­cu­rity im­pli­ca­tions for states across the re­gion and be­yond.

“This is about en­sur­ing tran­sit ac­cess for In­dian goods in gen­eral to Afghanistan through Iran, but po­ten­tially also to Cen­tral Asia,” said Tanvi Madan, who heads the In­dia Project at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion in Wash­ing­ton.

“The In­di­ans have tried for many years to get such tran­sit ac­cess through Pak­istan, but they’ve come to the con­clu­sion that it’s just not go­ing to hap­pen and that they need to move for­ward an­other way.

“In­dia also sees this deal as po­ten­tially con­tribut­ing to the fu­ture sta­bil­ity of Afghanistan,” Ms. Madan said, adding that New Delhi is anx­ious to en­sure that “Afghanistan has op­tions other than go­ing through Pak­istan to get ac­cess to the sea.”

The big ques­tion, she said, is whether ground will ac­tu­ally be bro­ken on the Chaba­har project any­time soon.

New Delhi first made prom­ises about the port back in 2003. But the plan got stalled for years by bu­reau­cratic bungling on both sides and was then derailed by in­ter­na­tional ten­sions over Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram — specif­i­cally when the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and its al­lies ramped up sanc­tions on Tehran in 2012.

Mr. Modi pledged $500 mil­lion to de­velop the port’s fa­cil­i­ties and make it a ma­jor trans­ship­ment point for goods dur­ing the meet­ing in Tehran. He also said In­dia will spend some $16 bil­lion dur­ing the coming years to build up the Chaba­har Free Trade Zone with roads and rail­roads run­ning in­land to the north.

Mr. Rouhani said the projects could be a “great sym­bol” of Iran-In­dia co­op­er­a­tion, with Ira­nian en­ergy re­sources and In­dian mines po­ten­tially paving the way for ex­panded trade in alu­minum, steel and petro­chem­i­cals be­tween the two na­tions.

Such plans fit within Tehran’s push to rein­te­grate into the global eco­nomic sys­tem fol­low­ing the lift­ing of in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions in ex­change for Iran’s cur­tail­ing of its nu­clear pro­gram un­der last sum­mer’s ac­cord with the U.S. and other world pow­ers.

For New Delhi, the deep­ened en­gage­ment could mean eas­ier ac­cess to oil and gas to feed In­dia’s im­mense and grow­ing en­ergy needs.

Iran had been the na­tion’s sec­ond-largest crude sup­plier prior to the im­po­si­tion of sanc­tions in 2012. Mr. Modi’s two-day trip to Tehran came with the an­nounce­ment that In­dia has be­gun pay­ing back $6 bil­lion in debt to Iran from past oil pur­chases — re­port­edly de­liv­er­ing some $750 mil­lion in such pay­ments.

Fric­tion with China and Pak­istan?

The In­dia-Iran-Afghanistan nexus comes as Pak­istan has grown in­creas­ingly close to China, which has poured money and re­sources into its own port-de­vel­op­ment project in the Pak­istan coastal city of Gwadar — just 45 miles down the coast from Chaba­jar.

De­spite the threat of at­tacks by Is­lamist mil­i­tants in Pak­istan, the Chi­nese have forged ahead with a $46 bil­lion Chi­naPak­istan Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor project, the thrust of which re­volves around de­vel­op­ing Gwadar.

Con­struc­tion at Gwadar is al­ready well un­der­way, with Bei­jing fram­ing the project as es­sen­tial to con­nect­ing its in­dus­tries in western China to mar­kets across the Mid­dle East through Pak­istan.

The In­di­ans are keenly aware of Chi­nese plans and, ac­cord­ing to Ms. Madan, a key part of New Delhi’s in­ter­est in back­ing a com­pet­ing project through Iran stems from a de­sire to “make sure China is not the only op­tion Mid­dle Eastern coun­tries have for trad­ing in the fu­ture.”

Many be­lieve the Pak­ista­nis, who have been locked in a nu­clear arms race with In­dia for decades and have long re­sisted In­dian in­volve­ment in Afghanistan, will view any In­dia-Iran al­liance with alarm.

“For In­dia to build up a re­la­tion­ship with one of Pak­istan’s other neigh­bors, you can’t look at that as any­thing but a threat,” said Richard M. Ros­sow, a se­nior fel­low on U.S.In­dia pol­icy stud­ies at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies in Wash­ing­ton.

And from the In­dian side, the idea of “geopo­lit­i­cally sur­round­ing Pak­istan makes a lot of sense,” Mr. Ros­sow said. “They’re putting a bet down that build­ing ties with Iran will give them a friend on the other side of Pak­istan that they can po­ten­tially lever­age at some point.”

Pak­istan’s em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton de­clined to even ac­knowl­edge the Chaba­har Port an­nounce­ment. When pressed, an em­bassy of­fi­cial said only that the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment views the China Pak­istan Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor “as an im­por­tant step to­ward growth and shared pros­per­ity.”

But the prospect of fric­tion with Pak­istan seemed to be on Mr. Rouhani’s mind while he met with Mr. Modi and Mr. Abadi in Tehran for their cel­e­bra­tory sum­mit. The Ira­nian pres­i­dent went out of his way to as­sure Pak­istan that the project is not against Is­lam­abad.

“Today’s deal will not be against any coun­try, and ac­tiv­i­ties of [Iran, In­dia and Afghanistan] will serve the en­tire re­gion and its peace and sta­bil­ity,” he said.

U.S. watch­ing ‘closely’

To date, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ap­proach to In­dia has cen­tered largely around an ef­fort to en­list New Delhi in Wash­ing­ton’s push for a coali­tion of na­tions to counter China’s grow­ing in­flu­ence in East Asia.

The most no­table ex­am­ple came in Jan­uary 2015, when Pres­i­dent Obama vis­ited New Delhi and signed the “U.S.-In­dia Joint Strate­gic Vi­sion for the Asia-Pa­cific.” De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter last June inked a 10-year de­fense frame­work pact with his In­dian coun­ter­part.

“In­dia is play­ing ball with the U.S. on se­cu­rity is­sues more than they ever have,” said Mr. Ros­sow, who sug­gested that In­dia’s will­ing align­ment with the Obama pos­ture to­ward China may have cre­ated some “wiggle room” for New Delhi to ex­pand its ties with Iran with­out ob­jec­tion from Wash­ing­ton.

“We look at In­dia’s se­cu­rity role and we look east, we don’t look west,” he said.

But In­dia’s moves have not gone un­no­ticed on Capi­tol Hill. Sev­eral U.S. law­mak­ers have raised ques­tions about the ex­tent to which the Chaba­har Port deal might vi­o­late re­main­ing U.S. sanc­tions on Iran, and ex­pressed con­cern to­ward the prospect of deep­en­ing mil­i­tary ties be­tween New Delhi and Tehran.


Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani (right), Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani (cen­ter) and In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi show off sol­i­dar­ity af­ter their tri­lat­eral meet­ing and sign­ing agree­ments at the Saad­abad Palace in Tehran, Iran.

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