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Focus: GS-II International Relations

Why in news?

  • Recent reports that Iran launched the track laying programme for the long rail link between Chabahar and Zahidan last week sparked concerns that India was being excluded from the project.
  • Iran has since clarified that it is NOT the case and India could join the project at a later stage.
  • This keeps the door open for Ircon International Limited (IRCON) which has been associated with the project even as India continues with the development of Chabahar port.

Click Here to read more about the Chabahar Port and the news regarding India’s exclusion

Connectivity for Afghanistan, India and Iran: The Timeline

  • Providing connectivity for Afghanistan through Iran in order to lessen its dependence on Karachi port has enjoyed support in Delhi, Kabul and Tehran since 2003.
  • Chabahar port on Iran’s Makran coast is well situated but road and rail links from Chabahar to Zahidan and then further on to Zaranj in Afghanistan, need to be built.
  • With Iran under sanctions during 2005-13 there was little progress.
  • India concentrated on the road to connect Zaranj to Delaram on the Herat highway, completed in 2008.
  • Things moved forward after 2015 when sanctions on Iran eased with the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal.
  • A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between India and Iran in 2016 to equip and operate two terminals at the Shahid Beheshti port as part of Phase I of the project.
  • Another milestone was the signing of the Trilateral Agreement on Establishment of International Transport and Transit Corridor between Afghanistan, Iran and India.

U.S. in the Equation

  • A special economic zone (SEZ) at Chabahar was planned but re-imposition of U.S. sanctions has slowed investments into the SEZ.
  • India was given a waiver from U.S. sanctions to continue cooperation on Chabahar as it contributed to Afghanistan’s development.
  • Despite the waiver, the project has suffered delays because of the time taken by the U.S. Treasury to actually clear the import of heavy equipment such as rail mounted gantry cranes, mobile harbour cranes, etc.
  • Tensions in the region have been growing since 2019 with missile strikes in Saudi Arabia claimed by the Houthis and a U.S. drone strike killing Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) chief General.
  • Recently the U.S. announced that it wanted the UN Security Council (UNSC) to continue the ban on Iranian acquisition of conventional weapons.
  • Just as it has been a tricky exercise for India to navigate between the U.S. and Iran to keep the Chabahar project going, Iran has found it a difficult balancing act to manage the hardliners at home while coping with Trump administration’s policy of ‘maximum pressure’.
  • Russia and China are the only countries to veto the U.S.’s moves in the UNSC.

Iran and China

  • In 2016, just as sanctions were eased, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Tehran and proposed a long-term comprehensive, strategic partnership programme that would involve Chinese investment in Iranian infrastructure and assured supplies of Iranian oil and gas at concessional rates.
  • China and Iran are close to sealing an ambitious deal on an economic and security partnership, a move that has caught the attention of policymakers in India and across the world.
  • The deal will facilitate the infusion of about $280 billion from Beijing, which wants to buy oil from cash-strapped Iran.
  • China will also invest into Iran’s transport and manufacturing infrastructure, thus giving it inroads into major sectors in Iran including banking, telecommunications, ports and railways.
  • Iran is already a signatory of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and this is in line with China’s “debt-trap diplomacy”.
  • The deal has come under criticism from Iran’s political actors, including former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Stakes for India

  • While India watches China with concern, what is alarming for New Delhi is that Beijing is also concluding a security and military partnership with Tehran.
  • It calls for “joint training and exercises, joint research and weapons development and intelligence sharing” to fight “the lopsided battle with terrorism, drug and human trafficking and cross-border crimes”.
  • Initial reports in Iran have suggested China will deploy 5,000 security personnel to protect its projects in Iran.
  • With a growing Chinese presence in Iran, India is concerned about its strategic stakes around the Chabahar port project that it has been developing.
  • The port is close to Gwadar port in Pakistan, which is being developed by China as part of its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that links it to the Indian Ocean through BRI.

India’s Position: Tightrope walk

  • India finds itself caught in the geopolitical rivalry between the US & China over Iran.
  • While India got a waiver from US sanctions for development of the port — on the grounds that it will help access Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan — it is still not clear whether railway and other projects are exempt from sanctions.
  • India’s dilemma also stems from the fact that robust support from the US is essential when it is locked in a border stand-off with China.

-Source: The Hindu, Indian Express

December 2023