There is no Iran-India-Afghan strategic axis in the making to counter China-Pakistan

The Indian pundits and media have gone overboard in interpreting the significance of the India-Iran collaboration to develop the Chabahar Port situated on the south-eastern coastline of that country.

They fantasise that the two countries are collaborating against Pakistan and China and that Iran is helping India expand its strategic influence in Afghanistan.

Of course, this daydreaming is happening against the backdrop of the spy thriller over Kulbhushan Jadhav languishing in some Pakistani cell, which still rankles.

With the dust settling on Prime Minister Narednra Modi’s recent visit to Tehran, a reality check is bound to happen – sooner the better.

Addressing Pakistani think tankers and strategic community in Islamabad on Friday, Iran’s ambassador Mehdi Honerdoost set the ball rolling by disclosing that:

  • Chabahar was first offered to Pakistan and China (before India came into the picture) but they were disinterested – and the offer is still open.
  • “Chabahar is not a rival to Gwadar” – on the contrary, Iran sees advantages of a link-up between the two ports that are separated by only 70-kms.
  • “The [Chabahar] deal is not finished. We [Iran] are waiting for new members. Pakistan, our brotherly neighbours and China, a great partner of the Iranians and a good friend of Pakistan, are both welcome”.
  • “We are ready for any rapprochement between regional countries which directly impact the interests of the people of our countries. Trade and business is business, and politics is politics. We should separate them.”

It is a pity that we needed to be reminded of the virtues of pragmatism in international diplomacy.

Productive visit

Without doubt, of all the visits abroad undertaken by Prime Minister Modi, the recent one to Tehran was undoubtedly the most productive.

The calibration of the visit by the Ministry of External Affairs was just perfect – no grandstanding, very purposive and ultimately productive and satisfying.

The fact that the prime minister took with him Nitin Gadkari, one of the clutch of dynamic cabinet colleagues in his lacklustre government, underlined forcefully that this time around Modi literally meant “business”.

That was the right approach. The fragility of the Indian-Iranian relationship was always that civilisational affinities and strategic congruence on regional security issues aside, it was an airy prtnership bereft of content other than the oil trade.

No strategic partnership can survive on love and fresh air. Thus, compared to the halcyon days in the 1990s when there was the shared antipathy toward Pakistan, the atrophy of the relationship was almost inevitable with the American intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 and the commencement of the (tragicomic) US-Indian dalliance in the Hindu Kush.

Therefore, Modi’s recent visit kickstarts an imaginative new phase aimed at raising the relationship with Iran to a far higher level than the timid United Progressive Alliance team ever showed the gumption to explore (lest the Americans read the riot act.)

Evidently, Modi’s accent is on economic partnership – as it ought to be. Iran is endowed with vast resources and is potentially a very rich country amassing much surplus of capital.

And, of course, we are now dealing with an altogether new Iran, which is free from United Nations sanctions and is raring to integrate with the world market.

Early birds catch the worm, as they say, and Modi’s visit was overdue.

Crude propaganda

The highlight of Modi’s visit was indeed the signing of the documents relating to development of Chabahar Port with an Indian investment of $500 million.

Chabahar could offer India a gateway to access the Afghan border up north (once a railway line is completed in the hinterland.) Meanwhile, Chabahar can also be used to evacuate Iran’s natural gas to India either through an undersea pipeline or as liquefied gas.

Many Indian analysts point out that our track record is dismal in executing projects overseas. There is reason to believe that Iranians too harbour misgivings on this score.

Clearly, our pundits and media have not even figured out the actual scale of the Indian involvement in Chabahar. The point is, India is only developing a couple of container terminals, which is a slice of the big port and, secondly, Chabahar’s optimal use becomes possible only in the fullness of time.

Make no mistake, Iran is a tough negotiator. We can safely anticipate that Iran will engage other countries too for the development of Chabahar port.

Clearly, our spin doctors and the hapless media were myopic to taunt Pakistan with the spectre of an “Indian presence” in Chabahar.

A wild thesis has appeared that Chabahar is India’s “answer” to Gwadar (which China is developing) – and, that an Iran-India-Afghan strategic axis is in the making.

The Iranians probably feel embarrassed that Indians could make such crude propaganda stuff out of their prime minister’s visit to a friendly country, simply to balance the score card with Pakistan on the Jadhav (who apparently operated out of Chabahar) affair.

The plain-speaking by the Iranian envoy in Islamabad ought to give food for thought.

In the most recent years, Tehran and Islamabad made sustained efforts to improve their troubled relationship. Tehran appreciated that Pakistan kept distance from the Saudi-led proxy wars in Yemen and Syria.

Pakistan’s cooperation becomes vital for ending the cross-border terrorism by Wahhabi terror groups destabilising Iran’s eastern Sistan-Baluchistan province.

Today, Iran’s policies toward Afghanistan are not Taliban-centric – they focus on state-to-state relations and prioritise the stabilisation of that country. Tehran does not vie with Islamabad for “influence” in Kabul.

Most important, Iran also is keen to tap into China’s Silk Road projects in Pakistan. One major project could be the extension of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor leading to China’s Xinjiang province.

What many in India do not understand is that Iran, unlike us, takes its tryst with destiny very seriously and does not indulge in vacuous grandstanding when it comes to its vital interests and long term strategies.

It is easy to understand what Iran’s motivations are in developing Chabahar Port:

  1. Sistan-Baluchistan province is a backward region, which also happens to be Sunni-dominated, where Wahhabi terror groups supported by Saudi Arabia have been operating from across the Pakistani border. Certainly, economic development of the region is an imperative need.
  2. Iran needs foreign investments in a big way – and from all available sources.
  3. Infrastructure development is a top priority for Tehran and Iran is conscious of its geography offering the potential to become a regional economic hub.
  4. Iran is intensely conscious of India’s rapidly growing market and Chabahar enjoys proximity to Kandla and Mumbai ports. An undersea gas pipeline from Chabahar to India is feasible – so is an alternative mode of transporting liquefied natural gas in container ships.
  5. Iran sees long-term advantages in getting India involved in a big way in its economy as an investor, builder and end-user alike, and it hopes that the modest beginning in Chabahar could be the harbinger of far bigger Indian projects in fields such as steel, petrochemicals, and so on.

In the final analysis, we will do well to factor in that China will likely be a major beneficiary of Chabahar. In a revealing commentary on Friday, the Chinese communist party tabloid Global Times hinted that this is not a zero sum game.

Chabahar offers an economical trade route for the Chinese products to reach the Indian market – in which case, paradoxically, it could be viewed as a pearl in the necklace of China’s One Belt, One Road.

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