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07 June, 2016

A reality check on Chabahar

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The deals India struck with Iran and Afghanistan during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visits to these countries have led to brouhaha at home and disquiet in Pakistan. The two sides appear to be exaggerating their hopes and fears.

While in Tehran last month, Modi committed $500 million for the development of Chabahar port in Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan province, which adjoins Pakistan’s Balochistan province. India, Iran and Afghanistan signed a trilateral agreement to create a transport and transit corridor.

The port and the corridor will free landlocked Afghanistan from dependence upon Pakistan for trade with India and other countries. They will provide India with access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. They will also help boost Iran’s trade.

Last week, on his way to Qatar and the United States, Modi made his second visit to Afghanistan in less than six months. On the occasion, he inaugurated the India-Afghanistan Friendship Dam in Herat province, built at a cost of nearly $300 million, to replace the Salma dam which was damaged during the civil conflict. It will irrigate 75,000 hectares of land and help generate 42 mw of power.

India is one of the largest benefactors of war-torn Afghanistan. It has so far spent more than $1 billion in reconstruction projects and humanitarian aid in the country. While leaving, Modi tweeted, “The dam is a generator of optimism and belief in the future of Afghanistan.”

Chabahar is barely 70 km from Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan province where China is building a port under an agreement of 2012. It is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Many in India view Chabahar and the trilateral trade and transit corridor as a riposte to Gwadar and CPEC.

There is unrest in both Iranian and Pakistani parts of Balochistan. Iran has accused Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) of fomenting trouble on its side of the border and Pakistan has alleged that India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is aiding dissidents in its territory.

According to Pakistani authorities, Kulbhushan Jadhav, an Indian national whom they are holding on espionage charges, was working for RAW. Indian authorities say he is a former navy officer and he was in Chabahar as a businessman.

Against this background, it is not surprising that the trilateral project has set alarm bells ringing in Pakistan. Speaking at a seminar in Islamabad, Asif Yasin Malik and Nadeem Lodhi, both retired lieutenant generals who had also served as Defence Secretary, said it posed a security threat to Pakistan. Malik asked the government to take diplomatic measures to avoid Pakistan’s isolation. Lodhi suggested using China’s influence to fix the problem.

There is a bit of irony in the generals’ response. Pakistan has been without a full-time Foreign Minister for some time and in any case the army has been formulating foreign policy in respect of neighbouring countries.

Iran’s Ambassador in Pakistan, Mehdi Honerdoost, has revealed that the Chabahar project was first offered to China and Pakistan but they showed no interest in it.

The euphoric as well as alarmist response to Chabahar stems from conventional political and military wisdom, and overlooks the new concepts of strategic relationships being put into practice the world over.

Iran, which has just emerged from years of Western sanctions, is estimated to have 9.3 per cent of the world’s oil reserves and 18.2 per cent of the gas reserves. It is eager to make up for lost time and claim its due place in the global economy.

Significantly, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran hailed the Chabahar agreement as not only an economic document but also a political and regional one. Ambassador Mehdi Honerdoost, while recalling that China and Pakistan had rejected Chabahar, said they could still come in. Iran needed more partners for the project, and “Pakistan, our brotherly neighbour, and China, a great partner of Iranians and a good friend of Pakistan, are both welcome,” he added.

A joint statement issued when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Iran in January had identified development of ports as a possible area of cooperation. In a commentary on the India-Iran agreement on Chabahar, the Chinese Communist Party’s English-language newspaper Global Times observed that China might be a major beneficiary of the port.

Khursheed Kasuri, considered the most successful of Pakistan’s recent foreign ministers, has said the present situation has arisen because the country’s civilian government and military leadership are not on the same page. That is a problem which Pakistan should resolve in its own interest. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 7, 2016.

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