A >trilateral transport corridor project , inked in Tehran this week by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the leaders of Iran and Afghanistan, has the potential to alter the geopolitical map of South and Central Asia. Mr. Modi’s visit also put an end to years of ambivalence on the development of Iran’s Chabahar port on the Gulf of Oman, the focal point of the corridor project. New Delhi and Tehran had agreed in 2003 to develop the port, near the Iran-Pakistan border. But the project did not take off, mainly owing to international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme, but also on account of inertia in Delhi. The removal of sanctions after Iran’s nuclear deal has provided New Delhi an opportunity to revitalise bilateral ties. The road, rail and port development projects, once implemented, will change the way India, Afghanistan and Iran do business. For India, the projects have specific economic and strategic significance. India and Afghanistan have failed to realise the full economic potential of their friendship owing to connectivity problems. The Pakistan link between India and landlocked Afghanistan has been an obstacle, given Islamabad’s tense diplomatic ties with both New Delhi and Kabul, and sometimes with Tehran too. Once the Chabahar port is developed, Indian ships will get direct access to the Iranian coast; a rail line to the Afghan border town of Zaranj will allow India a route around Pakistan. This will surely boost trade with Iran and Afghanistan. Besides, the proposed free trade zone in the Chabahar area offers Indian companies a new investment destination at a well-connected port city. India has already said its companies will set up “plants in sectors such as fertilizers, petrochemicals and metallurgy” in the zone. It will also supply $400 million worth of steel rails to Tehran to build the railway link.
From a strategic >point of view, Chabahar is situated just 100 km from Pakistan’s Gwadar port, the centrepiece of a $46 billion economic corridor that China is building. Though the Indian investment in Chabahar, at $500 million, does not match the scale of the Chinese project, the Chabahar port will act as a gateway for India to Central Asia bypassing the China-Pakistan arc. The long-term potential of this connectivity is immense. The real challenge lies in execution. India’s record in finishing big-ticket projects abroad is far from consistent. Also, with Tehran becoming the new destination of global powers, India needs to energise its diplomacy to keep engagement with Iran on an even keel, irrespective of outside pressure. With the Chabahar project, India has raised the stakes in Tehran substantially, and also raised the bar on its own regional ambitions. It cannot afford to let bilateral ties drift again, as it happened over the past decade.