India Monday (Dec 25) formally took over operations at Iran's strategic Chabahar Port, a move that, observers believe, could have significant geopolitical ramifications in the region.
The port on the Indian Ocean, inaugurated last year, is being built largely by India and is expected to provide a key supply route for Afghanistan while allowing India to bypass rival Pakistan to trade with Central Asia.
Tellingly, the U.S. State Department in November exempted the Chabahar Port project from sanctions in recognition of its importance to landlocked Afghanistan.
"After extensive consideration, the Secretary has
provided for an exception from the imposition of certain sanctions with
respect to the development of Chabahar Port and the construction of an
associated railway and for the shipment of non-sanctionable goods through the
Port for Afghanistan," a state department spokesperson said in a statement to
the Hindustan Times in November.
Since its inauguration last year, we have shipped about 110 thousand metric tons of much-needed wheat and 2,000 metric tons of pulses from India to Afghanistan through this port," Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale had said at a conference in New Delhi Delhi recently.
"To tap its full potential for benefit of Afghanistan, we might also need to pursue the development of a rail line from Chabahar to Zahedan at some future stage," he had added.
Zahedan is also in Iran but closer to the Afghanistan border.
According to Hindustan Times, New Delhi has poured $2 billion into development in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban's government.
The Iranian port of Chabahar does more than provide India an alternative route into landlocked Afghanistan. It also gives Central Asia an opening to a sea route in the Gulf. To India's East, the Bay of Bengal and beyond that South East Asia comprise the core of Indian Act East Policy. India is the largest littoral in the Bay of Bengal and connectivity with Southeast Asia is both by land and sea.
"Only 72 kilometers from the Chinese-backed, Pakistani port of Gwadar , the project is seen as a strategic play to limit the influence China seeks to gain and wield through its Belt and Road Initiative," Harsh V Pant, professor of international relations, King's College London says adding:
"The India-Iran relationship remains constrained due to Iran's openness to Pakistani and Chinese participation in the development of Chabahar. U.S.-Iran uncertainty and instability in Afghanistan complicate the intended benefits of the project still further."
The first phase of the strategic Chabahar port was inaugurated in December 2017 by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the presence of officials from 17 countries.
On October 29, 2017, India flagged off the first shipment of wheat bound for Afghanistan via Iran's Chabahar Port, in which India is a key developer.
To borrow Prof. Pant again, Chabahar is important to India, both as a stepping stone to become a larger regional infrastructure developer, but also to help drive trade and aid to Afghanistan. "Despite these important drivers in Delhi, the project has not proceeded smoothly, and there could be further bumps ahead as India tries to balance cooperation with Iran, its relations with the United States and Israel, and fend off regional challenges from China and Pakistan."
Strategic location of Chabahar
Chabahar port sits only 72 kilometers from Pakistan's Gwadar Port, which is being developed with Chinese investment. This proximity is viewed as another sign of strategic competition between India and China in the region. The Chabahar port project is important to India's larger geostrategic ambition that aims to limit China-Pakistan cooperation while expanding New Delhi's influence beyond South Asia, says Pant.