India has managed to balance the task of assuaging American paranoia about dealing with Tehran as well as confirming with Iran plans to participate in developing a port during External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s recent visit to Iran.
These mutually clashing aims were accomplished by a relatively simple diplomatic sleight of hand — India insisted with the Iranians that only Afghanistan must be mentioned in the portion of the joint statement on their agreement to co-develop the Chabahar port, said highly placed sources here.
The fact that development of Chabahar and extension of infrastructure in the form of a rail link will provide connectivity right up to Central Asia and even Russia via Semipalatinsk, an old silk road town but now infamous for Soviet testing of nuclear weapons, was not mentioned.
This is because Washington would have seen it as an Indian effort at bailing out Iran from the unilateral sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Western Europe in an attempt to make Tehran walk away from uranium enrichment plans.
Instead, the joint statement deliberately focussed on another route to Central Asia and the Caucasus. This route, the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC), is backed by close U.S. allies such as Azerbaijan, besides a host of other countries including Russia. In fact, the next multi-nation meeting on INSTC is slated in Baku.
Half in jest, the sources described the mentioning of only Afghanistan as the key reason for developing Chabahar was to “keep the Americans relaxed.” For, it is well-known in diplomatic circles that American Ambassadors visit even medium-sized factories in third countries to warn them of the consequences of dealing with Iran if they ever find out that the two sides have established contact.
For now, the official line is that India will co-develop the Chabahar port and then form a joint venture to build a rail line from there to the Afghan border town of Zaranj. India has built a road that cuts across the Pashtun territory from Zaranj to Delaram located on the Afghan garland highway that connects most of the country’s major cities. This road was constructed amidst persistent Taliban attacks that led to several Indians and Afghans being killed.
The Union Cabinet has already committed $ 100 million, a very small amount for developing a port but a huge symbolic gesture. India and Iran had prepared the ground earlier by holding a tripartite conference with Afghanistan on the eve of the previous Non Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran.
The three countries followed it up by inking a pact to provide preferential transit for goods to and from Afghanistan using the Chabahar port. As Washington is the most earnest about stabilising Afghanistan, the plan to open this shorter route from Iran to Afghanistan’s Pashtun provinces and beyond was something the Americans could hardly object to, stated another source.
The logic of Indian involvement in the port is that countries not too well equipped to develop such large infrastructure projects always take the help of a foreign partner — just as Sri Lanka and Pakistan taking Chinese assistance and Oman seeking the help of the Netherlands and Belgium for the Sohar and Salalah ports.
However, Iranian and Indian talks on investing in Iranian gasfields will remain pending. The same is the case with the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline which has reached the Pakistani border. It will take about 18 months for the pipeline to reach Islamabad, from where the Indian border is just 200 km. So Indians can afford to wait and hope in the meantime that the geopolitics of the region will change for the better. “Otherwise, the Americans won’t feel relaxed,” said the earlier source.