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Chah Bahar’s Imperatives to Emerge as Flagship of Iran-India Strategic Partnership

Paper No. 6204                                  Dated 13-Dec-2016

By Dr Subhash Kapila

Chah Bahar Port in Eastern Iran and Gwadar in Western Pakistan, both on the North Arabian Sea littoral have emerged as the latest chess-pieces in the maritime Great Power Game unfolding between India and China in the Indian Ocean.

Gwadar at the terminal end of the much-vaunted China -Pakistan Economic Corridor provides China with a much-needed strategic outpost in the Indian Ocean facilitating China to overcome its ‘Malacca Dilemma’ in terms of its energy security needs and as a naval base for China’s intended sizeable naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Gwadar’s economic utility is China-centric with limited collateral economic gains for Pakistan through which passes the major portion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The strategic significance for China of Gwadar far outweighs the economic significance simply because the hinterland of Gwadar does not generate much economic activity, even potentially.

Afghanistan’s strained relations with Pakistan and Pakistan Army’s incessant disruptive activities including suicide bombings in Kabul rule out Gwadar ever serving as the entrepot for land-locked Afghanistan. Gwadar therefore serves outright China’s strategic and economic interests, only.

China in the last eight years has raced to fast-track Gwadar’s development after displacing Singapore which had taken out a lease for forty years. Gwadar’s development received greater impetus with Chinese President Xi Jinping assuming power and his announcement of the US $ $ 52 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Obviously, Gwadar is the lynch-pin of the Chinese President’s Great China Dream’ and China’s latest unveiled Maritime Strategy to build China into a major naval power with global reach.

Against the backdrop of these fast-moving strategic developments undertaken by China, over-riding strategic imperatives exist for India to fast-track its long-awaited Chah Bahar Port project which in terms of conceptualisation predates the strategic interest of China in Gwadar. It would be wrong to term India’s strategic interest in Chah Bahar as a reaction to China’s presence in Gwadar.

India and Iran have had a mutual interest in development of Chah Bahar Port right from the days of the Shah of Iran but it could not take-off due to the Shah’s downfall. Chah Bahar again figured in strategic calculations of India and Iran in 2003 when agreements were signed by Indian PM Vajpayee. However, with UN sanctions imposed on Iran, once again, the Chah Bahar Project got stymied.

Geopolitical contemporary developments in 2016 prompted not only Iran and India but also now Afghanistan to sign a Trilateral Agreement for development of Chah Bahar ort as an example of regional economic cooperation and integration. Details of this momentous initiative stand covered in my SAAG Paper earlier this year.

Iran and India have both strategic and economic convergences in the development of Chah Bahar as a major port. For Afghanistan, Chah Bahar linked by Indian development assistance through Iran to Afghanistan’s Ring Road enables Afghanistan to break Pakistan’s economic stranglehold and Pakistan’s subtle economic coercive strategies to determine Afghanistan’s diplomatic policy options

India and Iran have shared strategic convergences on the security and stability of Afghanistan. Both nations will have more significant strategic access to Afghanistan. For India it is far more significant as with no geographical contiguity with Afghanistan, the Pakistani Establishment predominated by the Pakistan Army has consistently denied India economic access to Afghanistan.

In the same vein, India as a result of the above is also being denied land-routes access to Central Asia markets. India can now reach these markets through Chah Bahar and the North South Corridor in which Russia too is interested.

But far outweighing the economic significance of Chah Bahar and under-played both by India and Iran is the strategic significance of Chah Bahar when developed to its fullest potential.

Iran would be able to have an Indian Ocean deep-sea port, the first for Iran outside the Gulf. Iran has had notable naval ambitions to emerge as a regional naval power in the North Arabian segment of the Indian Ocean. Chah Bihar’s development and the economic activity that it would generate would enable Iran to undertake sizeable development of its outlying Eastern Regions bordering Pakistan. It wold also enable Iran to adopt a stronger defensive posture on its Eastern Border with Pakistan, and neutralise Pakistan’s propensity of providing its territory as a springboard for external military intervention in Iran.

India as an Emerged Power with enlarged areas of influence and areas of interest could do well by having logistic access to ports in partner countries both in its immediate neighbourhood and further afield. In this context, Chah Bahar is significant for India for more reasons than one. While India may not be viewing Chah Bahar as a naval base as China has done with Gwadar, but still many naval advantages do flow for India, otherwise too. Chah Bahar could be a port of logistics support for India enabling Indian Navy ships to put in greater time ‘on station’ when operating in the Gulf Region . Similarly, enhanced maritime surveillance of the North Arabian Sea and especially of the Chinese Navy in the region would be facilitated.

It needs to be noted that Iran did extend an invitation to China and Pakistan to participate in the development of Chah Bahar but they did not express interest. Reasons for their disinterest are fathomable. Only Japan has expressed willingness to participate in the Indian effort to develop Chah Bahar.

Chinese commentaries in its official media argue that geopolitical priorities can change and sometime in the future Iran may not have the same strategic convergences with India as it has today and therefore Indian strategic focus on Chah Bahar may hit a dead-end.  China forgets that it also applies China’s obsessive strategic focus on Gwadar, with Balochistan in turbulence and Pakistan’s own future uncertain. There are already domestic rumblings within Pakistan on the Gwadar project.

The United States under its new President may frown on the Chah Bahar project and if it adopts a hard-line policy on Iran, then India would have to be prepared to shrug off US pressures on Chah Bahar. The United States however would soon realise as I have always maintained in my writings that if the United States intends for continued embedment in The Gulf Region it cannot be despite Iran. To that extent, the United States would be well advised to factor this in its responses and also factor-in India’s strategic sensitivities on its imperatives for development of Chah Bahar as a potential strategic asset.

The Indian Ocean is one area where India gets backed by the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia in terms of not permitting Chinese maritime and naval sway over the maritime expanse of the Indian Ocean. To that extent Chah Bahar is an important strategic asset not only for India but moreso in the interests of the others as it would impede any Chinese open run to the Hormuz Straits.

In view of the above analysis what emerges is that strong strategic imperatives exist for India to pursue the Chah Bahar Port Development Project with dynamic and renewed vigour. It is in India’s strategic interests and so also I Iran’s strategic interests.

Concluding, it needs to be emphasised that the Iran -India Strategic Partnership was not a paper exercise or mere political signalling. This Strategic Partnership enshrined the strategic convergences that bind India and Iran together to aim for regional security as regional powers of long-standing civilsational ties and the joint intentions of both the countries to advance ahead. Chah Bahar should emerge as the flagship of this Strategic Partnership.