Although US diplomats have assured India that it will not face its sanctions for aiding the development of the Chabahar port, US president Donald Trump’s multiple U-turns and increasingly hawkish stance on Iran turns that assurance somewhat blurry.
Against the backdrop of US-Iran tensions, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is scheduled to hold talks with his Indian counterpart in New Delhi today. Apart from the US-imposed oil export clamp on Iran, an issue that is likely to dominate the bilateral discussion is Iran’s Chabahar port, in which India has strategic interests. Although US diplomats have assured India that it will not face its sanctions for aiding the development of this port, Trump’s multiple U-turns and increasingly hawkish stance on Iran turns that assurance somewhat blurry.
For India, Chabahar is expected to serve as a gateway to central Asia. It is also a counterweight to the closeby Gwadar port, a Sino-Pakistani venture. Located close to the Straits of Hormuz, through which about a third of the world’s seaborne oil passes, Chabahar would allow an Indian presence in a region considered critical by the rest of the world. Given that China’s outpost at Gwadar 72 km away could yet put India — and perhaps even Western powers — at a geostrategic disadvantage, it is important that the port project is seen through. And then there are trade benefits to be had. The port would give India an overland corridor through Iran to Afghanistan and other parts of central Asia (a region which currently accounts for only about 0.11 % of India’s overall trade).
Having Afghanistan as a regional ally, if India’s plans work out, would help “bracket” Pakistan on two sides and deprive it of literal “strategic depth” in any military offensive aimed at the country. In 2018, Afghanistan exported $740 million worth of goods to India, its largest overseas destination. To keep all these geopolitical interests on an even keel, India would do well to engage all stakeholders — the US included — and explain what it considers best for the region northwest of the Arabian Sea.