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All aboard the New Silk Road(s)

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Cross-posted from Al Jazeera

Iran, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US are all scrambling to get the upper hand across Eurasia.

Afghanistan, which imports half of its oil from Iran, "will be connected to the Arabian Sea via Iran, thus relieving its dependence on Pakistan" [EPA]

In the complex chessboard where the New Great Game in Eurasia is being played, both Kings are easy to identify: Pipelineistan, and the possible, multiple intersections of a 21st century Silk Road.   

Few have noticed a crucial meeting that took place during the recent Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran, between senior Foreign Ministry diplomats from Afghanistan, India and Iran. Their ultimate goal; a new Southern Silk Road connecting Iran to Central and South Asia through roads, railways and -- last but not least -- major ports.  

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The crucial Silk Road port in this case is Chabahar, in Sistan-Balochistan province in southeast Iran. Tehran has already invested $340 million to complete 70 percent of the port construction -- a decade-long project.  

But with US and EU sanctions biting harder and harder, Tehran expects Delhi to come up with a closing $100 million. India has already invested $136 million to link Chabahar to Afghanistan's ring road system.    

One does not have to be Alexander the Great to notice the fastest connection between Kabul and India would be through the fabled Khyber Pass. But that does not take into account the accumulated historical venom between Islamabad and Delhi -- their constant promises to increase cross-border trade notwithstanding.   

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With Chabahar linking Iran directly to Afghanistan and India, in theory Pakistan is sidelined. But it's much more complicated than that.  

All eyes on Eurasian synergy  

In theory, Washington won't tolerate its allies Kabul and Delhi not pushing further into isolating Iran (which is not isolated at all, as NAM graphically attested). In "facts on the ground" terms, there's not much the Obama administration can do.

For Delhi, getting closer with both Kabul and Tehran is all about its Eurasian strategy. It's in Chabahar, for instance, that Indian ships unload tons of humanitarian aid bound for Afghanistan. Moreover, Delhi has already invested over $2bn since 9/11 to improve infrastructure in Afghanistan.  

India and Pakistan are fierce rivals in a push to seduce the elusive markets of the Central Asian "stans" -- Afghanistan included. At the same time, Delhi badly lags in this race behind its prime geo-economic rival, Beijing. No wonder Delhi has launched a new, self-explanatory strategy: "Connect Central Asia."   

The prime competitor is -- who else -- China.  

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Chabahar means "Four Seasons"; that is, a port that may be used all year long. Thus its importance in the broader Iran-India strategic partnership -- not only in terms of Central Asia but for India's commercial relations with Southwest Asia and the wider Middle East.   

Crucial Southern Silk Road developments ahead include India linking Chabahar with the iron ore riches of Afghanistan's Hajigak (home of up to $3 trillion in mineral wealth) and Iran building a railway between Mashhad and the heavily Persianised Herat in western Afghanistan.  

So India is looking westwards while Iran is looking East. As for Afghanistan -- which, crucially, imports half of its oil from Iran -- finally it will be connected to the Arabian Sea via Iran, thus relieving its dependence on Pakistan.  

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Pepe Escobar is an independent geopolitical analyst. He writes for RT, Sputnik and TomDispatch, and is a frequent contributor to websites and radio and TV shows ranging from the US to East Asia. He is the former roving correspondent for Asia (more...)

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