Road to Afghanistan

Delhi's decision to push for access through Iran signals a welcome end to political dithering

As the United States withdraws its military forces from Afghanistan, India's imperative to deepen strategic cooperation with Iran grows stronger. Delhi's decision to step up efforts to gain access to Afghanistan through Iran, reported in this paper, has come not a day too soon. The long-standing plan involves the expansion and modernisation of a deepwater sea port in Chabahar on Iran's eastern coast, upgradation of a road link to Western Afghanistan, and a trilateral agreement between Delhi, Tehran and Kabul on the terms of overland transit. The strategic significance of this project for the three countries has long been acknowledged and was first discussed during the visit of Iranian President Mohammed Khatami to India in January 2003.

A number of factors have now come together to compel an end to the political dithering in India and Iran. Delhi, Tehran and Kabul are all trying to secure their own interests as Washington turns to Rawalpindi to facilitate a smooth withdrawal of the international forces from Afghanistan and a political reconciliation with the Taliban. Iran's growing nuclear confrontation with the US has raised Tehran's stakes in sharpening its Afghan leverage. India, which had tried but could not get access to Afghanistan through Pakistan, needs the alternative Iranian route more than ever before. China's recently acquired control over the Gwadar port in Pakistan, barely 70 km from Chabahar, has added a maritime dimension to India's regional security concerns.

The Chabahar port project gained traction when senior officials from the three countries met on the margins of the non-aligned summit in Tehran last year. Delhi and Tehran would need to demonstrate political will in converting this line on the map — from India to Western Afghanistan through Chabahar — into a real transportation corridor. The obstacles are not in Washington, which has welcomed India's attempt to increase Afghanistan's connectivity to the sea. They are rooted in Iran's continuing ambivalence about opening its territory to easy transit and India's inability to implement mega projects abroad. The success of the Chabahar project will depend entirely upon the terms of transit and port construction that Tehran is willing to offer and Delhi's capacity to get its foreign commercial act together.

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