The sincerity with which India is calibrating its Middle East policy, the fate of the Chabahar Agreement, which would help India better survey the growing Chinese presence in the region, is likely to see the light of the day soon. The negotiation to concretise this trilateral (Chabahar) agreement among India, Iran and the landlocked Afghanistan to develop the Iranian port of Chabahar is in advanced stages and “would be finalised quite soon,” says Bhaskar Roy, former RAW official. Besides opening up an alternative (bypassing Pakistan) trade route to Afghanistan and much deeper into Central Asia, the development of the Chabahar port would also help India neutralise Gwadar, a Chinese funded port built in Pakistan’s Balochistan region. Gwadar is being developed to secure China’s strategic interest in the region. Since Chabahar and Gwadar are at kissing distance of just 70 km, countering Gwadar assumes a strategic priority which explains why India is a major funding and technological partner in developing the Iranian port.
India may have to spend about $2 billion (plus) to upgrade and modernise the port. Making such an investment is deemed necessary for ensuring the security of India’s energy supply lines and also “to keep an eye on Chinese military adventurism and (possibly) the similar Sino-Pak joint activities in Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and in Persian Gulf,” says Jayadev Ranade, Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat. “With the kind of Chinese investment (of over $3 billion) and interest shown in developing the Gwadar port, it seems that Gwadar is not just an economic port. Pakistan has given sovereign right to China in and around Gwadar and it is being readied as a Chinese naval and military base. So, “to counter Gwadar, a virtual Chinese enclave in Pakistan, India needs a strong presence there,” says Ranade. In military terms, Chabahar might also give India a strategic point to squeeze Pakistan from the North if the need arises.
Whether Iran would agree to offer similar concessions (as Pakistan has gifted to China) to India depends on the kind of agreement finally signed. Strategic experts say that Iran might allow us electronic surveillance capabilities to keep track of Chinese activities in the region, if not anything overtly offensive. Iran is expected to reciprocate because the development of Chabahar gives Iran another deep water port (besides its congested port of Bandar Abbas) to access the sea which is crucial to ferry Iran’s energy exports abroad. Oil and gas exports have been the lifeline of the Iranian economy. Chabahar needs deepening by about 10 meters which India is willing to do along with the associated development of the port. India has also agreed to supply the steel needed to erect the massive port structure helping Iran to assume the stature it desires in the Middle East.
Many feel that India’s age-old trade and cultural relations with Iran would provide a strong basis to reach such an agreement. India has also agreed to invest billions of dollars to develop Iranian oil and gas fields. Chabahar might prove to be a win-win project for the three stakeholders. Roy feels that India’s good relations with Afghanistan and with the Central Asian governments can be of great importance to counter religious extremism being nurtured in the region.