Anchoring ties in Chabahar waters - Hindustan Times
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Anchoring ties in Chabahar waters

ByHT Editorial
May 15, 2024 01:24 AM IST

The port agreement suggests how India and Iran are keen to exercise strategic autonomy

The agreement signed by India and Iran for long-term operations by an Indian State-run firm at the strategic Chabahar port is a significant development, given the disruptions affecting global trade due to the instability in West Asia. The Chabahar project began in 2016 as an initiative by Afghanistan, India and Iran to create a trade and transit hub, with the tacit blessings of the US, which provided a carve-out for the port in its sanctions regime for Iran, given its interest in Afghanistan then. The situation has now changed, and the Indian side will have to be wary about the US threat of enforcing sanctions against all entities engaging in business deals with Iran. A US State Department deputy spokesperson, when asked about Chabahar, said: “Any entity, anyone considering business deals with Iran — they need to be aware of the potential risks that they are opening themselves up to and the potential risk of sanctions.”

The Chabahar port agreement figured in discussions during shipping and waterways minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s visit to Iran last month. (File) PREMIUM
The Chabahar port agreement figured in discussions during shipping and waterways minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s visit to Iran last month. (File)

Still, for India and Iran, the project offers a chance to build a trade route that could access Afghanistan and the landlocked Central Asian States. The deal is also in continuation with New Delhi’s long-standing relations with Tehran, which are showcased as a civilisational legacy, and hence, shielded from the compulsions of geopolitics. Nonetheless, India-Iran relations have been impacted by the ebb and flow of the West’s ties with Tehran. The 10-year agreement assuages Iranian concerns about India’s long-term commitment to the project, especially against the backdrop of New Delhi’s burgeoning strategic relations with Washington. While India has maintained a steady commitment for the development of a terminal at Chabahar, it faced challenges in its efforts to acquire modern equipment for the port because of concerns among Western suppliers over US sanctions. Despite these obstacles, the Indian State-run firm has handled more than 8.4 million tonnes of cargo since it began operations at Chabahar in late 2018. Experts believe this figure is only a reflection of the true potential of the deep water port, and India’s plans to invest $120 million in new equipment will give a major boost to Chabahar’s capacity.

In the current context, the obvious gains for India are economic, as Chabahar will open up opportunities to further its interests in Iran, especially at a time when China is eyeing the country’s ports and coastal infrastructure, and facilitate trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia. Clearly, the port agreement is premised on long-term economic and strategic interests, and, perhaps, suggests how New Delhi and Tehran, despite their current diplomatic stance and friends, are careful to exercise strategic autonomy to further their respective national interests. That will require some balancing, though.

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