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Modi in Iran: What it Means

The Iranian nuclear deal with P5+1 not only opened the door for the lifting of western sanctions against Iran, it released fresh energy into the Indo-Iranian relationship. In this changed international milieu, India has been keen to start an undersea pipeline project that would supply Iranian gas to India bypassing Pakistan. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his visit to Turkmenistan, proposed a land-sea route through Iran for the supply of Turkmen gas to India. India has also made concerted efforts to secure the Iran-Oman-India pipeline.

Similarly, Modi’s recent trip to Iran and signing agreements reflect the changed realities and reconfigured bilateral relationship between India and Iran. Of all the agreements and MoUs signed, the one relating to the development and operation of the Chabahar project is of paramount importance.

It goes without saying that India’s economic and strategic outreach to landlocked Afghanistan and the resource-rich Central Asian states has been governed by Afghanistan’s troubled transit and border relations with Pakistan and the Afghan Trade and Transit Agreement of 1965 has been determining the course of Afghan trade with India. This agreement provides passage to Afghan goods between Afghan borders and seaports of Pakistan. While Pakistan has been allowing Afghanistan to transport some of its exports through the India-Pakistan land borders, but it has rarely permitted Indian goods into Afghanistan.

In view of Pakistan’s denial of an overland route to Afghanistan, India became involved in building the 218 km long Zaranj-Delaram road in remote south-western Afghanistan and devised plans to get it connected to Chabahar port on Iran’s southern coast. While construction of the road was completed by 2009, building and operating the port and connecting the road to the port has not materialized.

In this context, Modi’s recent two-day visit to Iran assumes significance. Modi signed the final deal to build and operate the port during this visit. Construction of ports and roads perform dual functions by expanding a country’s commercial and military influence. For example, the Gwadar port constructed by the Chinese and Pakistani collaboration not only sought to transfer Central Asia’s vast energy resources to world markets, the port was described by Pakistan’s Navy Chief as the country’s third naval base after Karachi and Ormara.

It is noteworthy that it was in response to Pakistani and Chinese strategies in the Indian Ocean that India and Iran signed “Road Map to Strategic Cooperation” during President Mohammed Khatami’s January 2003 visit to India. India was keen to assist Iran in constructing the Chabahar port and road links between Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. US- led sanctions against Iran and India’s dependence on the American war strategies in Afghanistan prevented India from seriously engaging with Iran. India’s American proclivity resulted in India’s vote against Iran’s nuclear program. India backed three US – supported resolutions against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency and enforced UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran. India’s position was oblivious to Iran’s vitality to India’s concerns such as common stakes in the stability of Afghanistan and shared concerns like the rise of Sunni fundamentalism and drug-trafficking. Apart from this, it was through Iran that India could secure connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Modi’s visit is intended to redefine India’s relations with Iran following quick reversals as Indian withdrawal from IPI pipeline had induced Pakistan to go for the Iran-Pakistan pipeline with Chinese assistance.

This pipeline was considered an integral part of the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor project and China’s ambitious Silk Road Economic Belt initiative. China incorporated a growing interest in enhancing connectivity with Iran through land and sea using Pakistan as a bridge. Iran, on the other hand, sought greater economic integration with Pakistan and China as Pakistan is emerging as a growing market for Iranian energy resources while China is already the largest importer of Iranian oil. Development and operation of the Chabahar port would allow India strategic space in Afghanistan, Central and West Asia. However, India’s failure to deliver on its promises and agreements has been one of the detracting factors creating strategic space for other players in the neighborhood and extended neighborhood.

India’s failure to move ahead with the Kaladan multi-modal transit-transport system connecting India’s north-eastern states through Myanmar to Sittwe port which would have effectively linked India with the ASEAN region and failure to implement the projects of building roads in the Tarai region of Nepal have helped only to cool off relations in the neighborhood. Since a decade has elapsed between the signing of the first trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan and signing of the final deal to build and operate the port, India must sincerely follow up with this agreement.