Country is pushing hard to put the missing rail links in place

Notwithstanding the U.S. pressure to scale down its engagement with Iran, official sources here said the country not only remains an important source of oil for India, but is crucial to opening up routes to Central Asian and Caucasian countries, where New Delhi's quest for hydrocarbons and minerals is gathering critical mass.

“We recognise that Iran is the key to connecting with Central Asia,” said the sources while referring to a major meeting last month on a proposed Russia-Iran-India promoted North-South corridor that would originate from Bandar Abbas leading to Russia and other countries via the Caspian Sea.

India has “taken the lead” and is “pushing hard” to put the missing rail links in place so that a seamless route from Bandar Abbas port to Russia and Central Asia opens up by next year by when the customs union of Russia-Kazakhstan-Byelorussia would have expanded to include other Eurasian countries.

Customs procedures

Besides the three original signatories, over 15 countries have joined the north-south project. In addition to putting in place missing railways links of about 200 km, all the sides will have to harmonise their customs procedures to make the endeavour workable. Currently Indian goods enter Russia through the Baltic ports of St. Petersburg and Kotka, the European port of Rotterdam and the Ukrainian ports of Illychevsk and Odessa.

Iran, said the sources, was also critical to stabilising Afghanistan as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) grouping after the NATO forces scale down their operations in 2014. Nearly all the countries surrounding Afghanistan are either members or observers to the SCO and they said, “we take it [the SCO] as an important platform to discuss the post-2014 situation in Afghanistan.”

India is also closely following the development of another route into Central Asia via Iran and Afghanistan into Uzbekistan. Currently a portion of the route (part of the the Northern Distribution Network) — from Termez in Uzbekistan to Mazar-e-Sharif — is used by the NATO to transfer non-lethal supplies for its forces to Afghanistan.

Alternative route

A western spur from Mazar to Herat would go to Delaram, follow an India-built road till the Iran border and, if the missing rail link is constructed, will connect to the Iranian port of Chabar. India is also interested in another alternative route that would go from Mazar to Iran's Sangan and Kerman cities and ending at Bandar Abbas port.

Both these routes bypass Pakistan and the insurgency-hit southern Afghanistan, while giving it access to Central Asia. In both cases as well as the North-South route, India will have to ship its goods to the Iranian ports and then transport them by land into Afghanistan and Central Asian countries in the north and the east.

However, the sources admitted that the intense U.S. pressure has put the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline on the back burner for the moment. While not involving Iran, a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan's South Yolotan gas pipeline to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India is making rapid progress. But Iran remains central in plans to source gas and oil from Central Asia, where political goodwill for India has resulted in allocation of the Satpayev oil block in Kazakhstan despite intense interest shown by China. India is also discussing the sourcing of gas from Uzbekistan's Karakalpakstan region with talks having gathered pace during its President Islam Karimov's visit last year.

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