Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signed a major deal to finance development in Chabahar, Iran’s easternmost port. Chabahar is under 600 miles from Gujarat, the Indian export powerhouse where Modi served as Chief Minister from 2001 to 2014. Quartz reports:
On May 22, the Indian prime minister flew down to Tehran and the next day signed 12 agreements, including a deal to develop Iran’s Chabahar port. India will spend $500 million on the project, with a plan to invest an additional $16 billion in the Chabahar free trade zone.But Chabahar—located about 1,800 kilometres south of Tehran—is more than just a port with an adjoining free trade zone.“With our joint investments in Chabahar, we can connect India through a reliable route to Afghanistan and countries in Central Asia,” Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said in press conference. “The agreement today is not only an economic document: It’s also a political and a regional one.”
The port is an important piece of a regional strategy—along with a railroad, it promises to link India with Afghanistan and Russia, weakening Pakistan’s grip on Indian trade with Central Asia.
It remains to be seen if the port will ever be built; international history is full of ambitious looking deals that somehow never quite materialize (including India’s 2003 agreement to develop Chabahar). But for Pakistan this has the potential to become a strategic nightmare: greater Iranian and Indian influence in Afghanistan challenges Pakistan’s doctrine of controlling most of Afghanistan in the interests of a “defense in depth” and only adds to the Pakistani fear that uncontrolled movements among Afghani Pashtuns could spread to Pakistan’s own restive Pashtun population. Also, the deal puts India right next door to Baluchistan, where a long running insurgency, which Pakistanis believe has Indian support, is a bleeding wound that has, among other things, delayed Pakistan’s own program of developing (in concert with China) a major port in Gwadar—around 60 miles from the growing Indian presence in Chabahar.
The deal also carries benefits for Iran, checking Pakistan and opening more trade links as the Islamic Republic emerges from its international isolation. At the same time, however, it is worth mentioning that Modi’s government has been reaching out to the Saudis and the Israelis, both of which are concerned about Iranian expansion.
It is quite possible that behind the scenes the U.S. is smiling benignly on these moves, as the Obama administration explores avenues of cooperation with Iran and looks for others to pick up the slack as the long running American presence in Afghanistan moves, slowly, toward an end of some kind. India’s attempt to balance powers in South and Central Asia harkens back to the non-aligned diplomacy of the Cold War days, and spells more stability in a region that could use it.