An Iranian seaman holding up Iranian and Chinese national flags during a ceremony at Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman during Iran-Russia-China joint naval drills in 2019. Photo: Iranian Army Office / AFP

Politics is always a tricky business. It becomes almost impossible, sometimes, to tell which way the winds will blow. International politics is even trickier.

On the regional canvas, recent developments in Tehran-New Delhi ties proved this political axiom right. The development is related to the much-hyped Indo-Iranian Chabahar Port. Iran has removed India from the railway project for the port.

The deal was signed in 2016. Back then, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed baskets of agreements with Iran. However, even then, it was not the multitude of agreements but their delivery on the ground that was at issue.

Interestingly, the US has exempted the Chabahar project from its sanctions against Iran, and India was expected to capitalize on this. However, four years after the agreement, it turns out to be India’s funding delays that compelled Tehran to take this turn.  

The railway project was set to lay a strategic transit route from Chabahar to Zahedan in Afghanistan, and on to Turkmenistan. Here is the regional context as well as the hidden tale of Indo-Chinese rivalry.

Indian frenzy surges

The opposition Indian National Congress party has severely criticized Modi’s dilly-dallying on this project. Rahul Gandhi, president of the party, tweeted: “India’s global strategy is in tatters. We are losing power and respect everywhere and GOI [government of India] has no idea what to do.”

Another Congress leader, Abhishek Singhvi, hit out at the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), stating, “This is the diplomacy of the Modi government that won laurels even without getting the work done, China worked quietly but gave them a better deal. Big loss for India. But you can’t ask questions.”

Indian media, too, have joined the voices of the opposition party. The Hindu newspaper termed this development a lost opportunity for the country. The newspaper wrote, “The impression that India wavered due to US pressure, especially after India canceled oil imports from Iran, also questions New Delhi’s commitment to strategic autonomy.”

One of India’s popular yet controversial news-media anchors called it a “betrayal” by the Iranian side since it is a “Muslim” country. Indeed, anti-Muslim sentiments run high in some chunks of the Indian media.

New Delhi loses out in regional politics

The backlash is not without justification. The current India-China border standoff in the Galwan Valley has not gone down well in the strategic quarters in India. In the midst of this tension, Nepal initiated a new map row leading to border disputes with New Delhi. As if these diplomatic and strategic setbacks were not enough, “the rising and shining India” received another diplomatic blow: Iran’s decision to remove India from the railway project.

If China was not in the picture, this development wouldn’t have been as much of a big deal. In the backdrop of simmering Beijing-New Delhi tensions, China has finalized a 25-year strategic partnership with Iran.

The bilateral agreement is estimated to be worth around US$400 billion. In contrast to this, India has invested $500 million in the Chabahar project. So it is no surprise that Iran has tilted in China’s favor. Obviously, it is Beijing’s tried and tested politics of “geo-economics” that is winning on the regional chessboard.    

With a multibillion-dollar deal from China, it is possible that the Indo-Iranian bilateral project will lose relevance going forward. With this deal, Iran seems to have opened its doors for Beijing. Chinese investment will pour in while giving Tehran a boost for its ports, railways, telecommunication, infrastructure, and banking sector. In return, Iranian oil will come in handy for Chinese industry.

Along with this Beijing-Tehran economic bonhomie, defense and political collaboration is not a far-fetched possibility. Intelligence sharing, military-to-military collaboration, and army and naval exercises would all ring alarm bells in New Delhi. If implemented, the China-Iran quarter-century deal could swing the geopolitical and geo-economic balance in Beijing’s and its partners’ favor.

Pakistan, being a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has been working toward building a China-Pakistan-Iran nexus for some time. On multiple occasions, Iran has also expressed its interest in joining the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.

Trying to get the best of both worlds, Tehran first sealed a deal with New Delhi while keeping the doors open for collaboration with Beijing and Islamabad. Now that tensions have soared between Beijing and New Delhi, Tehran has struck the iron while it is hot.

In terms of regional connectivity projects, New Delhi seems to be in a faltering position. Chabahar Port was set to be a pivotal link in a regional connectivity project, the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC). This corridor runs counter to Beijing’s BRI.

Initiated mainly by Russia and India, INSTC connects Central Asian states, passes through Afghanistan, and ends at Iran’s Chabahar. With Iran falling into China’s hands, can India materialize the regional connectivity projects that are parallel to Beijing’s? This question becomes even more prickly when the Russia-China politico-economic partnership is factored in.

There is no doubt that, by opening multiple fronts with almost all of its neighbors, India will face more challenges to its regional and global strategies. The wise option is to cooperate. It is the need of the time that New Delhi must pay attention to.

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Ghazanfar Ali Garewal

Ghazanfar Ali Garewal is a lecturer in the international relations department of the National University of Modern Languages in Islamabad and coordinator of the department. He holds an MS degree in international cooperation from Yonsei University, Seoul, an MSc in international relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and an MA in English from NUML.

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