Development of the Chabahar Port complements the strategic interests of both the US and India. Both states must recalibrate their engagements with Iran to achieve their collective and individual long-term goals.
The killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani added significant fuel to already unstable relations between the United States and Iran. Soleimani was revered as a hero among Shiite Muslims in Iran and Iraq for fighting against the Islamic State terrorists. To the United States, he was perceived as an imminent threat and ruthless killer responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members.
Iran wasted no time in seeking retribution for the killing of Soleimani. On January 8, Iran fired several missiles at two Iraqi airbases housing US troops. The concern is that both states may continue to initiate countermeasures that would further escalate tension in the region. The US has also recently tightened its “maximum pressure” strategy towards Iran by imposing more sanctions following an attack by pro-Iran militias that killed two American soldiers in Iraq.
The Chabahar Port in the Sistan-Balochistan province of Iran, a hub of activity and one of the country’s economic lifelines, is the only Iranian entity of its kind that has been spared from US sanctions. The geopolitical significance of the Chabahar Port for the US lies in its importance to Afghanistan. As a key US partner, India can play a crucial role in forwarding Washington’s strategic interests by enhancing its role in the development of the Chabahar Port. In addition, developing the Chabahar Port will also provide both the US and India a platform to check China’s growing assertion in the Indian Ocean.
India and the US: Strategic Convergence
India took over operations at the Shahid Beheshti terminal in Chabahar in December 2018. The Chabahar Port offers a strategic opportunity for India due to its location on the Makran Coast of the Arabian Sea and beyond the Straits of Hormuz. In a scenario when the Straits of Hormuz were shut down, trade and commercial activities at Chabahar would remain unaffected. The Chabahar Port also links India to Afghanistan and energy-rich Central Asia, while physically bypassing Pakistan. Considering that Pakistan has blocked the entry of India within its borders, the Chabahar Port will serve as a strategic alternative for New Delhi to gain access to Iran, which serves as a key gateway to boost trade with Afghanistan.
Development of the Chabahar Port would allow Iran to enhance its trade with India and Afghanistan. In addition, Afghanistan would be further benefited by lessening its dependence on Pakistan. A developed Chabahar would also serve as a challenge to China, as it will allow India to counter China’s presence in the Arabian Sea. Beijing has been increasing its naval presence in the Indian Ocean by helping Pakistan develop the Gwadar Port, which is less than 400 kilometers from Chabahar by road and 100 kilometers by sea. The Chabahar Port could be used in a circumstance in which China decides to flex its naval muscle by stationing ships in the Gwadar Port.
The Chabahar Port would enable India to boost its contribution towards economic development and political stability in Afghanistan. A stable, strong, and effective government in Afghanistan is crucial to both India and the US. It would greatly decrease Pakistan’s interference, and the level of terrorist activity in the country.
According to a US state department spokesperson, “President Trump’s South Asia strategy underscores our ongoing support of Afghanistan’s economic growth and development as well as our close partnership with India.” Limited cooperation between India and Iran through the Chabahar port will significantly aid Afghanistan’s development and serve as a strategic leverage for India in the South Asian region and beyond.
Both India and the US are also wary of an assertive China that has been increasing its strategic footprints in the Indian Ocean. By emphasising the importance of the development of the Chabahar Port, both Washington and New Delhi will be able to both pursue their collective interest of safeguarding the stability of Afghanistan, and check China’s increasing assertion and expansionist interests in the region. At a time when Beijing seeks to boost its strategic presence in Iran and Afghanistan, the US and India must collaborate to protect a rules-based international order that guarantees peace, stability, and development.
Despite obtaining a waiver from the US on the Chabahar Port project, India has not been able to make much progress. While the Indian government is enthusiastic, and has been making provisions for the project, companies have been unwilling to take the risk of investing in the infrastructure development there due to US sanctions. To move beyond these challenges, the US and India must agree on limiting cooperation with Iran to the Chabahar Port. This will not only allow the US to achieve its strategic interests in South Asia without fully compromising its political stance on Iran, but will also give Indian companies the reassurance they need to proceed with their projects in the area. This step may be rather challenging initially, but its long-term benefits will surely be worth it.
The development of the Chabahar Port is crucial to both the US and India, as it ensures the economic and political stability of Afghanistan. In addition, securing the port will serve as a platform to check the growing assertiveness of China in the Indian Ocean, and deter it from obstructing the rules-based order of the international system. However, for this ambition to materialise, certain challenges must be addressed. The US must re-calibrate its engagements with Iran for India to fulfil its part as a strategic partner. Both states must continue to coordinate to ensure the stability of not only Afghanistan, but also the entire Indian Ocean region.
Don McLain Gill is pursuing his master’s degree in International Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He has written extensively on regional geopolitics and Indian foreign policy.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.