Dither no more

Chabahar's strategic significance for India cannot be overstated. Delhi must move quickly

The idea of developing the Chabahar port in southeastern Iran as a regional commercial hub is a decade old. It was first discussed when former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami came to New Delhi in January 2003. While it is a mark of the political dithering in Delhi and Tehran that serious talks on the project could begin only about 10 years later, the recent Chinese offer of a 60 million euro credit line to Iran (as reported in this paper) close to the prospective Indian investment in Chabahar, and presumably a precursor to a Chinese bid may have brought India's effort close to its day of reckoning.

A number of reasons compel the upgrade of Chabahar. With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan on the horizon, India, Iran and Afghanistan got together on the sidelines of the NAM summit in Tehran last year to secure their own interests. Their agreement on promoting a trilateral economic partnership gave traction to the Chabahar project. Delhi needs overland access to Afghanistan for the shipment of its goods and participation of its companies in Afghanistan's reconstruction, as well as development of its mineral resource deposits. Chabahar would provide precisely such access, via an Iranian-built road to the western Afghan border linked to the Zaranj-Delaram road India has built in Afghanistan. Not only would this circumvent the problem of Pakistan's continuing denial of access to Indian shipments bound for Afghanistan, it would also resonate geopolitically by lowering landlocked Afghanistan's dependence on Pakistani ports. That Pakistan's Chinese-operated Gwadar port is only 70-odd km from Chabahar only underscores India's strategic imperative.

While Iran can benefit by turning Chabahar into a logistical hub, Tehran's compulsion is also its need to mitigate the economic impact of Western sanctions against its nuclear programme. That very factor, however, has made it difficult for Delhi to work with Tehran without offending Washington. Still, the biggest impediments have been Iran's unease in opening its territory to the easy movement of goods and India's unimpressive record in executing mega projects abroad. It's time for the shipping ministry to deliver, so that this line on the map becomes a real transit corridor.

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