'U.S. waiver for Chabahar not time-bound, will develop it as a hub’: Iran Ambassador to India

In an exclusive interview to The Hindu, Iran’s new Ambassador to India Dr. Ali Chegeni says the potential for India from Chabahar goes well beyond India-Afghan trade

Updated - November 28, 2021 09:21 am IST

Published - February 17, 2019 10:57 am IST - New Delhi

A cargo ship is docked during the inauguration ceremony of the newly built extension in the port of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman, southeastern Iran, near the Pakistani border on December 3, 2017

A cargo ship is docked during the inauguration ceremony of the newly built extension in the port of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman, southeastern Iran, near the Pakistani border on December 3, 2017

What is the status of the Chabahar project today, and what is expected over the next few months?

Chabahar is well known in India, but even so, many people here only know the name and not much more. Most don’t realise that Chabahar port is very close to India. From the western port of Kandla it takes only six days by a fast ship to reach Chabahar. It is part of the Indian Ocean, so is very deep, unlike other ports in the Persian Gulf like our port of Bandar Abbas. So we want to promote Chabahar as a hub where big ships can enter, offload to smaller ships that can go easily to other ports as well.

Chabahar has good weather round the year, which means four springs (Char Bahar), and won’t just be useful for the port infrastructure, but also the free trade zone that we are building nearby. The government of Iran wants to build Chabahar as the focal point with the entire coastline of 1000 kilometers to be developed for oil refineries, petrochemical and steel factories, and other projects.

I visited Chabahar shortly before I arrived in India to take charge, and I can assure you that the work is well under way. There is one airport, and we are working on another airport, while the gas pipeline has already been built up to about 200 kilometers close to Chabahar. So we can build big LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) and LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) plants in the zone. We will be able to build the easiest way for India and Afghanistan to trade here and also will connect Chabahar to Turkmenistan. From Zahedan, we have a railroad through Turkey to Europe, and Central Asia through Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as to the Mediterranean via Iraq and Syria. Once the railroad from Chabahar connects to Zahedan, many more opportunities will open up.

You describe a very complex network of connectivity in the future, but surely this is not realistic while Iran faces sanctions from the U.S., even the possibility of a direct conflict? How confident are you that Chabahar can be developed despite this?

Well firstly, there is a U.S. waiver for Chabahar, and it is not time-bound. In any case, we don’t care about sanctions from third parties. This is our country and our business, and we continue to do our best to develop it. At times, we even believe the sanctions despite being inhuman and illegal but sometimes are an opportunity for us. When the war against us was first started, and sanctions were placed on us [by the US], we were in such a terrible position that we would even need to beg countries to supply us bullets and ordinary guns, just to defend ourselves.


Now we are a regional power in terms of our defenses, and nobody can look at us wrongly. So, we became self sufficient because of the sanctions, and we know how to stand on our feet now. That is why Chabahar won’t be affected by these sanctions. There is now a real interest from Central Asia, countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan are all contacting us despite all the restrictions, and India is continuing to develop it.

A few months ago there was a bomb blast in Chabahar. Is there a security risk there?

We are an independent country, a sovereign country, but we have our enemies. I can assure you that despite this, Iran is the safest country in our neighbourhood. Security doesn’t just come from the gun, but from our internal strength. We have a reading of Islam that is peaceful, unlike some countries. So if foreign countries were trying to make our country insecure, they have failed. Iran, like India, doesn’t threaten its neighbours. A single blast should not be mentioned as cause of security risk in that region.

United States President Donald Trump has only just said that the US considers Iran the biggest State sponsor of terror….

Where is his proof? Tell us what nationality were the people who attacked the [United States]? Why is he blaming us, when it was nationals from another country who carried out the [9/11 attacks in 2001]? Mr. Trump can say many things; we are not responsible for what he says. But he must prove his claims to the world. He bears the burden of proof.

To return to the sanctions, while India has kept up its interest in Chabahar port, it has reduced its intake of Iranian oil substantially. Is the Iran government disappointed by this?

India has historically been a good friend to Iran. Our friendship doesn’t belong to this generation, but dates back thousands of years. We have been next door to each other for centuries, and share common culture, beliefs, language, arts, music, and so many things. One or two events cannot change that. We are too connected to each other.

For business too, India and Iran complete each other’s needs. We produce the goods India needs, and vice versa. India needs energy and energy security, as it is a growing developing nation. So, Indian authorities have said very clearly that they will not zero out their energy intake from Iran, and we are grateful for their independent decision in the matter.

Not “zero out”, perhaps, but Iran has gone from the being India’s fourth largest supplier of oil to sixth place in one month [November 2018, post-sanctions]. Are you saying this doesn’t bother you?

The amount of oil imported by India can go up and down, but we are sure India’s decision is to continue to import oil [from Iran], and not to cancel its imports. Tomorrow there may be a problem with gas as well, as India needs our gas, given the fact that Iran is one of the world’s biggest suppliers. Last year, India imported more than 132 MT of crude oil, not to mention LPG, LNG. India’s needs are growing as it is one of the world’s fastest growing economies. So this temporary situation can not affect out course of constructive relations.

What is the progress on organizing payments for India-Iran trade then…is the sanction-proof mechanism that was started in 2012 still working?

Absolutely, and we have built on it with a plan to open a branch of the Pasargard bank in Mumbai. According to the latest information, all the necessary permissions from the Reserve Bank of India have now been completed; the bank has rented a place in Mumbai and will be operational within two months. This will add to the work being done by the UCO Bank branch in Tehran. But we think we should not be limited to just two banks for payments. Other banks in India have expressed their interest in being involved in trade and financial mechanism with Iran.

Will all trade through Chabahar be routed through these banks as well?

Yes. We foresee the banking mechanism be very useful for Chabahar, not just for India but also for third countries like Afghanistan where the trade is bound for. Despite the fact that no railroad exists yet, India was able to send wheat to Afghanistan through Chabahar last year. Chabahar has a very strategic purpose, and has advantages that our bigger port in Bandar Abbas doesn’t have. We expect that it will be one of the region’s biggest ports someday.

At present there are two berths at Shahid Kalantari and Shahid Beheshti, but when I visited I saw that there are plans for much more. Land is practically free for investors. Energy and manpower are available at very low rates. We hope to showcase all this at a special investors’ conference on February 26 in Chabahar.

Also this month, India is expecting three different visits by Iran’s adversaries where the subject of the sanctions on Iran will come up: the visit of US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on February 14, one by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman on February 20, and a planned visit by Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Does this worry you?

I can’t speak on behalf of the interests of other countries. We do respect India as an independent, sovereign country. Our relation with India is not at the expense of other parties and all that we have heard from officials at the most senior level is that India has great capacity to increase its business ties with Iran well beyond the current $14 Billion balance. The potential is double that amount.

We are not worried about other visitors here. Forty years after our revolution, which we mark this week, we are not insecure or shaky about our future. And India has strong roots; it is not a small tree that will bend with the wind. PM Modi and President Rouhani have drawn a clear roadmap for our future cooperation and we look forward to realize that.

To speak about the region, a visiting Iranian dignitary had said that your government is open to facilitating talks between the Indian government and Taliban, something India is not willing to do at present. Did you receive a response on this suggestion from the Indian side?

The issue of Afghanistan affects the whole region, and as neighbours we have to work together to end the conflict there. There are some parties from outside the neighbours involved in Afghanistan too. We cannot forget what happened in the past. Afghanistan has paid a high price to reach this point and people are still paying with their lives. The bloodshed that followed the American invasion of Afghanistan has cost them, and they need to be protected according to the decisions of the Afghan people. They now have a constitution, which is a big achievement, and there is a government based on the constitution. All groups in Afghanistan seeking peace, security and development should be involved in talks now. That’s why we believe in engaging with the Taliban, as long as they look after the interests of Afghanistan.

Not every country, especially out of neighbouring countries, has good intentions for Afghanistan. There is also the production of opium, which is a major concern. Opium and drugs threaten the world. If there is no peace with the Taliban, there will only be the production of more terror and more opium, more problems for the Afghan nation as for the whole region. So we shared this with our Indian friends during our bilateral talks, and said we cannot ignore the role of the government in Afghanistan, but we think the Taliban should also be included in talks. We received their delegation in Tehran. We shared details of our talks with the Taliban with both the government of India, and the government of Afghanistan and other neighbours. Our Minister Dr. Zarif briefed the Foreign Minister here when he visited Delhi. And we remain ready to help all our neighbours by all means.

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