More than a dozen years ago, India began to explore the possibility of expanding and upgrading the Iranian port of Chabahar.
This was motivated by a variety of aims, including the possible establishment of a gateway to the vast mineral resources of Afghanistan and the creation of a suitable facility to handle higher-volume Iranian natural gas exports to India.
A 120-mile road – an offshoot of the main road which links Kandahar to Herat – was built from Delaram, in the Nimruz province of Afghanistan, to Zaranj, on the northern Iranan border, in anticipation of an expansion of Chabahar.
That road was designed to meet Iran’s new connecting road from Zaranj down to Chabahar. India paid a very high cost to complete it, both in terms of dollars spent and men killed by the Taliban: more than 100 construction workers paid with their lives. Besides the road, India also signed a bilateral agreement with Iran to create a rail link from Chabahar to Zahedan, on the Iranian border with Afghanistan.
Last year, Afghanistan, Iran and India signed an agreement to transform Chabahar into a sprawling, modernized port facility. Now, Chabahar serves as an unlikely litmus test. Despite their optimism and expressed desire to see this project come to fruition, the three countries find themselves at odds with the often vocal and aggressive posturing of US President Donald Trump when it comes to Iran in general. As a result of this attitude from the White House and persistent bureaucratic inertia, the timetable for any upgrades to Chabahar’s facilities had seemed to be slipping. In mid-February, however, the Afghan Consul General in India, Mohammed Aman Amin, told a group of reporters assembled at a training session for Afghan customs personnel, in Nagpur, India, that the port was expected to open for business this month.
Will it, then, open as Amin indicated, with ships initiating services to and from Afghanistan? That remains to be seen. While his overt optimism does warrant scrutiny, the wheels are turning – just not as fast as the participating parties want them to be.
“India has engaged in a very delicate balancing act as it has attempted to maintain good relations with Iran,” says Sumit Ganguly, Professor of Political Science at Indiana University at Bloomington, who points out that the US administrations of George W Bush and Barack Obama also presented India with challenges. “Chabahar is seen by India as a way to checkmate the Chinese.”
He adds: “The Trump Administration may discover that any unilateral actions undertaken here to squeeze India over its growing ties with Iran may end up being more than counterproductive. They could easily backfire.”
US Army General John Nicholson, who commands US combat operations in Afghanistan, told a US Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on February 9 that he welcomes the Chabahar project and that it will offer Afghanistan a viable and economic alternative to shipping all its goods via Pakistan. Gen Nicholson’s statement does not appear to fit neatly with President Trump’s current game plan, but other US generals have expressed viewpoints recently which do not always concur with the commander-in-chief’s.
“Iranian-Indian-Afghan cooperation over the Chabahar Port presents great economic potential. With over US$2 billion development aid executed since 2002, and another US$1 billion pledged in 2016, India’s significant investments in Afghan infrastructure, engineering, training, and humanitarian issues will help develop Afghan human capital and long-term stability,” said Gen Nicholson.
His testimony also included comments regarding increased Russian support over the past year for the Taliban, which will continue its attempts to block any efforts by India to expand its presence in Afghanistan. This news of Russia’s role might serve to temper President Trump’s inclination to speak against the Chalabar project.
“India has lots of anxiety about Russia’s recent moves with the Taliban. In addition, Gen Nicholson wants India to ramp up its support for Afghan security forces. The dispatch of four attack helicopters to Kabul by India recently was largely symbolic in nature,” says Ganguly.
More importantly, President Trump may need to show increased sensitivity in his dealings with India anyway after two shooting incidents in the US in the past few weeks involving hate crimes aimed at US citizens of Indian and Sikh descent.
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US officials were already reconsidering the plan by defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin to open an F-16 fighter production line in India, as a way of stemming the outflow of US jobs. In response, India could, among other things – according to Ganguly – turn to the Eurofighter consortium or the Swedes, for example, as suppliers of its aircraft.
Having the South Asia desk at the US State Department sit vacant pending the appointment of a new Assistant or Under Secretary of State only adds to the uncertainty and confusion in New Delhi.
“We have not seen a policy paper (from President Trump’s foreign policy team). And the only thing we have seen is Gen Nicholson’s recent testimony,” says Ganguly.
That said, Ganguly notes that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is already “tired of Pakistan’s support for any number of terrorist groups” and that attitude dovetails with the Trump administration’s avid support for stronger counter-terrorism measures across the board both in this region and elsewhere.
Japan is caught between a rock and a hard place too. It is seen as an investor in and perhaps construction services provider for much of the infrastructure at Chabahar. Ships of 100,000 tons can access the port now, but improvements will allow ships more than twice that size to use it. India has stepped up and is poised to contribute a substantial investment – over US$500 million – both in the form of a US$150 million line of credit for port facility improvements to enable two new intermodal terminals to be built, and an estimated US$400 million worth of railway hardware.
Japan has much bigger concerns, however, with North Korea and China, concerns that may make it reluctant to proceed with any work in Iran absent a nod from Washington DC.
Meanwhile, just down the coast from Chabahar, China and Pakistan are eagerly linking the upgraded port of Gwadar in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan to a rail line running all the way from Central Asia across the western part of Pakistan, as part of the grand China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
India’s planned investment in the extensive Chabahar project is dwarfed by the estimated US$46 billion China is spending on CPEC, and Gwadar is more than a thorn in India’s side. Its role in supporting an increase in China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean is what has spurred Japanese willingness to help transform Chabahar into a deepwater hub.
Other rail and road projects in Iran and Afghanistan are worth noting. China is already upgrading the rail link between Tehran and Mashhad, with a projected completion date of 2019. India is pursuing a Chabahar-Faraj-Bam railway, and perhaps even a 360-mile Chabahar-Hajigak railway, allowing for direct access to Afghan mines. China has railway projects underway in Turkey, and a regular service to Tehran by Chinese trains travelling 6,000 miles from Zhejiang Province to Tehran via Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan began last February. Iranian and Chinese companies are working on other new rail construction projects in Iran, too.
In Afghanistan, China signed a US$204 million contract to begin construction on a 178 km Dar-e-Suf to Yakawlang road connecting the country’s central provinces. The project will be paid for by the Asian Development Bank. A second 550 km road is planned by ADB from Dar-e-Suf to Kandahar province.
Chabahar thus serves as a significant test case going forward. The US needs to demonstrate considerable patience and flexibility in Chabahar – with India in particular. Trusting Gen Nicholson’s instincts here may turn out to be the optimal way for Washington to proceed. Speaking out – again – about an increase in hate crimes in the US might be in order, too.