By Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Chabahar is an Iranian port on the Makran coast of the Arabian Sea, about 90 kilometers from Pakistan’s Gwadar port in the Balochistan province. In 1970, the US was the first major power to set its eyes on Chabahar. It began developing it into a major naval and air base as part of its Indian Ocean strategy but, before the projects could be completed, the revolution drove the Americans and their companies out.
The new regime realized the importance of Chabahar as a secure and alternative port for defense supplies to sustain its efforts during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 88. Peace ended much of the temporary importance Chabahar had acquired. As Iran confronted a myriad of security and economic issues in its post-war reconstruction, the development of the port was put on to the back-burner.
Chabahar presents the possibility of a deep water port in the Gulf of Oman. Iran wanted to emerge from its resource crunch and see international sanctions lifted before it invested heavily or consistently in the development of the port. But an opportunity arrived as India evinced an interest in Chabahar as part of its efforts to circumvent Pakistan for its trade with Afghanistan. Landlocked Afghanistan has historically depended on Pakistani ports and transit routes, but Kabul’s relations with Pakistan have been problematic for decades due to war, proxy intervention and the activities of terrorist groups in the border regions. This has impacted on the flow of trade from Pakistan, as well as from other countries, meaning Afghanistan has wanted to lessen its dependence on Pakistani ports. For the past decade, it has increasingly turned to Iranian ports, although the transportation costs have been much higher. Chabahar offers a much better option to Afghanistan, as well as India.
India has gradually emerged as an important economic and political player in Afghanistan. Traditionally, Afghan regimes, with the exception of the Taliban, have been very close to India, as New Delhi has been generous in giving economic and security assistance. Now, as an emerging ally of the US in support of its South Asia policy, India has acquired much greater influence and a stake in Afghanistan. Its contribution to the development of infrastructure, health and educational institutions in Afghanistan is much higher than any of its other neighbors. Growing trade between Afghanistan and India is also an important dimension of their relationship. They believe their trade would have grown manifold had they not faced the geographical barrier of Pakistan between them.
Afghanistan in particular feels upset with Pakistan for not allowing India a transit facility through the Lahore-Peshawar route, which would be the most cost-effective option. While Afghanistan can export goods to India via this route, India cannot do the reverse — it has to use the Karachi port.
India, Iran and Afghanistan see their interests converging on the development of Chabahar port; with each having its own specific reasons. Iran is deeply interested in developing a north-south corridor and wants to use this region for the transportation of energy to India and goods to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Afghanistan will definitely get an alternative route, though a bit costlier in terms of the distances involved. Meanwhile, by using this port, India will easily bypass Pakistan for its exports to Afghanistan and Central Asia. India also plans to construct a submerged pipeline that will take Iranian gas to India. It is a win-win situation for the three countries, and especially for India to advance its interests in Afghanistan and beyond.
Had it not been for India’s investment in the Chabahar port, which is estimated to be more than $500 million, it might have remained underdeveloped. There are other critically important projects for Afghanistan and Iran linked to Chabahar that India is pursuing, including the construction of a 900-kilometer railway line that will connect the port with Afghanistan’s Bamyan Province. As part of the understanding, Iran is going to hand over the operation of the port to India next month.
What do these developments mean for Pakistan? Should Pakistan be concerned by an Indian presence on the Makran coast in Chabahar? The answers lie in how one reads the motivations behind the Indian investment in Chabahar and its ambitions in the region. Apparently, Chabahar is being developed into a commercial port, not as a naval base for India to “counterbalance” China’s investment in and operational control of the Gwadar port. In my assessment, India sees itself as an emerging regional power and wishes to expand its influence in all directions through trade and investments. Iran and Afghanistan constitute its extended regional neighborhood, where it has succeeded in developing deep and extensive relationships. The Chabahar port, railways and road projects are manifestations of this success.
The reason Pakistan is not too concerned about Chabahar is that, realistically speaking, it cannot be a substitute for Pakistan’s ports and transit routes that Afghanistan currently uses and Central Asian states may also use in the future. The ports at Karachi and Gwadar are much closer to any destination in Afghanistan. Most areas of Afghanistan will be served by the Pakistani transit routes. Finally, having the ports involved in an evolving regional economic integration may mean they supplement rather than compete with each other. The more alternatives there are, the better it is for regional economies.
(The author Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @RasulRais