Unending wait for Chabahar: India and Iran squabble over a key port, under Trump’s long shadow

How’s that port doing?
How’s that port doing?
Image: EPA/Presidential office of Iran/Handout
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When Iranian and Indian leaders signed the agreement to jointly develop the Chabahar port—some 1,800 kilometres south of Tehran—last summer, it was heralded as a project that would transform relations between the two countries.

“We should perceive the agreement as an engine of growth, and I believe it is the beginning of a new era in the Indo-Iran relationship..,” Nitin Gadkari, India’s roads and shipping minister, had declared on May 22, 2016. A day later Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani signed on the dotted line, formalising New Delhi’s commitment of $500 million towards the project.

Nine months on, Chabahar seems dead in the water: The Indian and Iranian governments are now squabbling over delays, even as newly-elected US president Donald Trump’s hawkish stance towards Tehran threatens to hamstring the project.

The ongoing diplomatic finger-pointing is a curious affair. Indian officials insist that New Delhi has $150 million ready for disbursement but the Iranians haven’t completed the paperwork necessary to release the funds, The Economic Times newspaper reported. The Iranians told the newspaper that the delay was from the Indian side, without explaining further.

Conceived in 2003, the interruptions in implementation of the Chabahar project belie its importance: India views it as a conduit to bypass Pakistan and make deeper inroads into energy-rich Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and beyond. It is also a counterbalance to increasing Chinese influence in the region; Beijing has built a deep-water port in Pakistan’s Gwadar, only 72 kilometres from Chabahar, which became operational last November.

Backroom bickering aside, India’s pursuit of Chabahar faces another obstacle: deteriorating US-Iran ties.

After the thaw during his predecessor’s term, relations between Washington DC and Tehran have nosedived since Trump took office. There’s been a visa ban on Iranians (along with six other Muslim-majority countries), and fresh economic sanctions on individuals and companies following missile tests. “Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile,” the US president said in a tweet.

Such a situation puts India in a tricky spot: It wants to do business with Iran, but not at the cost of disrupting ties with the new US administration. “The Trump administration will be a difficult partner to deal with on this issue,” Harsh V Pant, professor of International Relations at King’s College London, told the Mint newspaper.