Could Chabahar Port set the ball rolling for sea changes in West Asian economic-political scene?
Thanks to the Iran policy of the outgoing Trump administration, China has already stepped into Iran with a new 25-year $400 billion deal to induct Tehran into their One Belt One Road (OBOR) project, thereby not only jeopardising Indian interest in Chabahar but also posing a serious question to the US dominance in the Persian Gulf in the coming days. And that’s not all. This could be the curtain raiser for the Russia-Turkey-Iran-China alliance to counter the US-Saudi Arabia nexus in the region. In a nutshell, Chabahar could be signaling the turnaround of West Asian economic-political scene.
Therefore, as Joseph Robinette Biden Jr would sit at the Resolute Desk of Oval Office as the 46th President of the United States of America, Chabahar would be one of the Trump regime’s legacies that he would have to deal with firmly, because, along Delhi, Washington has real stakes in it. If prompt action is not taken, things might not be in Biden’s favour in the coming days.
Chabahar, meaning four springs or spring well, is a city and capital of the Chabahar county in Iran. Being Iran's southernmost city, Chabahar is situated on the Makran coast of the Gulf of Oman and is part of the Sistan and Baluch province of Iran and is officially designated as a ‘Free Trade and Industrial Zone’ by Iran's government.
The history of Chabahar dates back to 2500 BC when it was a fishing harbour named Tis, aka, Tiz and was part of Alexander’s Asian conquests. Historian Afdhal al-Din Abu Hamid Kermani wrote about this harbour in his book Aqd al-Ala lel Moghefe al Ahla in 584 A.H. (1188). According to the scholar and historian, Alberuni, Gujarat had sea trade with Tiz in his encyclopaedic work on India called Tarikh Al-Hind. Eventually, Tis was destroyed by the rampaging Mongol herds. Some ruins could still be traced here. Later the harbour was in British and Portuguese occupation.
Modern Chabahar would date back to around 1970 -when by the order of the then ruler Shah Reza Pahlavi - a modern naval and air base was established as part of the Shah's policy of making Iran into a dominant power in the Indian Ocean. Though major US companies took part in this mega project - they all left after the fall of Shah and the whole project went into limbo. But Tehran understood the strategic importance of having a port like Chabahar beyond the Strait of Hormuz during its seven-year war with Iraq. With renewed interest, Tehran brought a new scheme which aimed to use Chabahar's geographical position as a regional development tool to stimulate economic growth in the eastern provinces.
New Delhi first showed interest in Chabahar Port way back in 2003 but nothing tangible took place despite several rounds of talks. The ball was really set rolling in 2016 when both countries made the Chabahar pact where it was agreed that Delhi would be developing the ancient Chabahar harbour into a modern port with a state-of-the-art container terminal and also develop an industrial hub in the port’s backyard.
New Delhi had some other ambitions as well. After cessation of the bloodbath following the end of the Taliban regime in neighbouring Afghanistan and installation of the Hamid Karzai regime by US led western powers in Kabul in 2001, the Afghan government tried to resurrect the economy by picking Hazizak, a mineral rich region north of Kabul for industrialisation while roping New Delhi as the new partner. It was decided that not only one Afghan state company would be formed with active participation of Indian steel giants such as Steel Authority of India to start extraction of three billion tonnes of iron ore reserve of Hazizak but one state-of-the-art steel plant would be set up as well. The finished products as well as the minerals would be transported to the Afghan-Iran border by a 900 km long railroad, which would also be built by RITES, another Indian company. Across the Iranian border, another Indian built railroad would take the product to the Port of Chabahar. With this development, trade could not only be conducted with the land-locked Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan but inroads would also be made to trade with central Asia - using Iranian northern and western borders.
In fact, the Obama administration had paved the way for the Indian venture by lifting the economic embargo on Tehran and the picture looked rosy for New Delhi in West Asia. But then Trump came to power. As a hardliner, he took a different stance and reimposed the economic embargo. But this time, Tehran found a friend in Beijing. Chinese leader Xi Jin Ping had initiated his much promoted OBOR project by then and quickly emerged as the saviour by buying Iran’s crude to rope Tehran in the mega project.
But there are other broader issues as well. Barely 50 km away from Chabahar is the Chinese financed Gwadar port in Pakistan - a key element of the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC). By linking Gwadar with CPEC, Beijing has opened not only an alternative route for its much-needed oil import but also a vital land route. Generally, oil tankers would make a more than ten-thousand-kilometre-long voyage from the Persian Gulf to the North China Sea via the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea before anchoring in the east coast of China. But there is tension mounting in the South China Sea as all regional nations are up against Chinese claims of the sea stretch. Moreover, the Indian Ocean is more or less ruled by the US and the Indian navy. All these factors prompted Beijing to seek an alternative safer land route and it believes CPEC is the answer with Gwadar being the gateway.
Without further delay Beijing roped in Tehran in the OBOR project for an extensive trade and military partnership - throwing a much-needed lifeline for the embargo hit Iranian economy. According to leaked versions of the 18-page ‘Comprehensive Plan for Cooperation between Iran and China’, Beijing would be pumping $400 billion worth of investments in Iran’s oil and gas, infrastructure and transportation sectors as a part of the 25-year bi-lateral strategic partnership. Tehran, on the other hand, would commit Iranian oil and gas supplies to China during that period. Needless to say, all these Chinese initiatives would put a death knell in the Indian dream of Chabahar, which would have catastrophic consequences for New Delhi.
Now why is Beijing so keen in the Iranian venture? According to experts, the answer lies in the Baloch province through which the CPEC runs. Tehran and Islamabad are locked in a shadow war in the Baloch region and the safety of CPEC has forced Beijing into the scene. For Washington, the stake is no less. The Persian Gulf is the gateway for 40% of global oil trade which is mostly controlled by the US Navy - which virtually acts as the gatekeeper at the Strait of Hormuz at the Sea of Oman. In normal times, the US Navy is constantly bothered by Iranian gunboats. So, if the Chinese takes control of ports like Chabahar, which is in close proximity to The Strait of Hormuz, the threat perception would naturally increase. Checking Chinese control in West Asia would be in Washington’s interest. New Delhi would be keenly watching Biden’s Iran policy to see how far it can tilt the situation.