Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Iran visit is perhaps his most fruitful foreign tour so far. Typically, in our country every feat is hyped as ‘historic’—be it a victory in state polls or even the commencement of a welfarist scheme—but Modi’s recent overseas tour has the potential of bringing substantial, comprehensive gains for India.
In a joint statement, Modi and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that the two countries can improve their economic cooperation. The two countries signed a dozen pacts, including the one to develop the first phase of strategic Chabahar port. As per the pacts, India would build and operate two terminals and five berths in the Chabahar port.
This acquires special significance against the backdrop of China’s huge investments in the development of the Pakistani port of Gwadar in Balochistan, about 60 miles away from Chabahar. The Gwadar port would be operationalized by the end of this calendar year, handling about 1-million-ton cargo. The port is said to be an integral part of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor plan.
Modi has committed $500 million for the Chabahar port, which is aimed at developing a sea-land access to central Asia, thus bypassing Pakistan. In order to make the access possible, India also inked a trilateral agreement with Iran and Afghanistan. This, Modi said, would lead to the flow of commerce, capital, and technology through the region. “Today, the watch-words of international ties are trust, not suspicion; cooperation, not dominance; inclusivity, not exclusion,” Modi said. He termed the Chabahar agreement as a “corridor of peace and prosperity for our peoples.”
While Chabahar will open up several avenues for India, it will also be beneficial to land-locked Afghanistan. “Afghanistan will get an assured, effective, and a more friendly route to trade with the rest of the world,” said Modi.
And, of course, Chabahar will India closer to not only Iran, Afghanistan, and central Asia but also the Middle East. “The distance between Kandla and the Chabahar port is less than the distance between New Delhi and Mumbai, and so what this agreement does is to enable us quick movement of goods first to Iran and then onwards to Afghanistan and Russia through a new rail and road link,” Minister for Road Transport & Highways and Shipping Nitin Gadkari told PTI.
Closer economic ties with Iran will also help India politically. It may be remembered that Tehran, though largely well-disposed towards New Delhi, has not been always very friendly. On November 19, 2010, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had appealed to Muslims worldwide to support their brethren’s freedom struggle in Jammu & Kashmir. “Today the major duty of the elite of the Islamic Ummah is to provide help to the Palestinian nation and the besieged people of Gaza, to sympathize and provide assistance to the nations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Occupied Kashmir, to engage in struggle and resistance against the aggressions of the United States, the Zionist Regime…”
But, today, Sunni terrorism—whether in the form of the ISIS, al-Qaeda, Taliban, or Pakistan—is anathema to Shia Iran. Therefore, better relations with Iran are likely to undermine Pakistan’s position in the region.
However, Modi’s enterprise can make a difference only if it is followed up with equivalent institutional response. And it is here that the shoe pinches. The Indo- Myanmar Kaladan project, connecting our northeastern states to Myanmar’s Sittwe port, was scheduled to be completed by 2013; it is still languishing.
In September 2013, India and the US inked the Defence Trade & Technology Initiative (DTTI). It took a year for the first meeting to take place. Gross incompetence of the DRDO, the nodal agency, and bureaucratic ennui have ensured that the initiative never took off.
Even in the case of the Chabahar port, has taken more than a decade to reach where we have. It was Modi’s immediate predecessor, Manmohan Singh, who had signed the first trilateral agreement between India, Iran, and Afghanistan.
So, it would be instructive to see how the Chabahar project unfolds.