Yuan Zhen, our special correspondent in India
On the 3rd of this month, local time, Iranian President Rouhani headed to Sistan in Baluchistan, Iran’s southeast border province, to attend the inauguration of the first phase of Chabahar port. This news, which should have been cause for excitement in Iran, has become one of the hottest news in India ever since. India’s “Economic Times” made the claim that the port opens a new strategic passage for India to break out of Pakistan’s (stranglehold over) links to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Quint, an Indian news website under Bloomberg News of the United States, states it bluntly: the strategic importance of Chabahar port is reflected in the fight against China.
Rouhani attended the opening ceremony on the 3rd, together with officials, Ambassadors and transport Ministers from 13 countries. Iran’s “Financial Tribune” reported that the first phase of Chabahar harbor, to be known as Shaheed Behrshi port with an annual throughput of 8.5 million tons and with calls by 100,000 to 120,000-ton class super-large container ships, is Iran’s strategic port. The complete port of Chabahar is to be built in four phases, with a total throughput of 77 million tons.
India is one of the countries that sent officials to attend (the inauguration ceremony). The Times said India had signed an agreement to develop the Chabahar port with Iran and promised to invest 500 million U.S. dollars. At the same time, India has signed agreements with Iran and Afghanistan on the trilateral transport corridor. It is believed that Iran has invited the Indian government to “manage” or operate Chabahar harbor Phase I until the second phase of construction is completed. A month ago, India shipped the first boat to Afghanistan through the port. Indian Foreign Minister Swaraj called it “an Indian gift to Afghanistan”. India’s “Financial Management” website said Pakistan blocked India from reaching Afghanistan through Pakistan. Chabahar will result in increased trade volume between India, Afghanistan and Iran.
According to the Economic Times, this port of India, located in the Gulf of Oman, will rival Pakistan’s Gwadar port, which is being built by China. Chabahar harbor is only 75 km from Gwadar harbor. There is an international airport in Chaba1har, and Iranian naval and air bases are located there. The Quint commented that whereas Gwadar allowed China unimpeded access to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, the port of Chabahar represented the Indian Navy’s strategic ability to monitor the entry and exit of Chinese warships there. The newspaper said the expectation is that India will develop a Free Trade Zone around the port and eventually build a $ 1.6 billion railway linking Zahedan to Iran.
With regard to Chabahar, Pakistan emphasized that it will not oppose the trade with India and Afghanistan it triggers. The “Daily Pakistan” quoted Pakistani Foreign Ministry Spokesman Faisal as saying on the 3rd: “We do not think this port represents any kind of an alliance against Pakistan or (feel the need to) oppose it. Our trade with Afghanistan, Iran and China is as good as ever.”
Just a day before the completion of the first phase of the Chabahar harbor, Indian Foreign Minister Swaraj made a surprise visit to Iran. According to the Hindu newspaper, Swaraj stopped by in Tehran on the 2nd on her way back from Sochi, Russia, (where she had gone) to attend the SCO, and held a luncheon meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif. Some officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of India said that the two Foreign Ministries made positive comments on the implementation of the Chabahar harbor project. Iran states that India is a key partner. But “The Quint” poured cold water on the hot sentiment of the two countries on the 3rd, saying that Chabahar was facing a strategic trap and the U.S. factor. Iran has the capacity (possibility of) leaving India and causing its strategic breakout (idea) to dawdle. And, in order to have Chabahar run smoothly, the U.S.-Iraqi exchange of fire needs to be avoided.