Chabahar is a metaphor for strategic autonomy - Hindustan Times
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Chabahar is a metaphor for strategic autonomy

May 29, 2024 11:47 PM IST

Chabahar deal augurs India’s rise as a leading power that can persuade or compel other countries to accommodate its national interests.

India’s declaration of a day-long State mourning and the lowering of the national flag to half-mast to commemorate the unexpected deaths of Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was a rare gesture. In recent years, such honour was accorded by India when Sultan Qaboos of Oman and Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom passed. The symbolic respect accorded to Raisi now is in recognition of Iran as a valued partner.

The agreement signed by India and Iran will facilitate the long-term development of Shahid Beheshti terminal of Chabahar port. (PTI photo)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
The agreement signed by India and Iran will facilitate the long-term development of Shahid Beheshti terminal of Chabahar port. (PTI photo)(HT_PRINT)

India recently signed a 10-year contract to operate the Chabahar port in Iran and further expand its investments in this strategic outpost on the Gulf of Oman. It was a bold signal from New Delhi that it will forge ahead in pursuit of its long-term national interests despite geopolitical headwinds. Given the extreme tensions flaring up between Iran and its regional rivals, India’s move carried risks but demonstrated its firm determination to manage its multiple strategic partnerships and extract the most from all of them.

India decided to double down on its stakes in Chabahar at a time when Iran has been embroiled in a near-warlike confrontation with Israel. Tehran and Tel Aviv have crossed previous red lines and engaged in direct missile and drone attacks against each other’s territories, and the two antagonists have upped their proxy wars in the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip. Israel has indicated unambiguously that every sensitive critical infrastructure installation belonging to Iran is in its crosshairs.

But even as the gloves have come off in the undeclared Iran-Israel war, India’s assets in Chabahar are not likely to be directly imperilled. This is because India has a robust strategic partnership with Israel and Tel Aviv does understand New Delhi’s compulsions and motivations for developing Chabahar, which doesn’t conflict with Israeli interests. Container bulk cargo shipments to and from Chabahar are helping to reify India’s core vision of bypassing Pakistan as a land transit country and creating alternative multi-modal pathways for two-way trade among India, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Eurasia.

With the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) agreement also having ambitious plans for transit via the Gulf of Oman up to the port of Haifa in Israel, India is co-creating a wide-ranging trans-regional connectivity architecture as it seeks to regain its place as a major commercial power across and beyond the Indian Ocean. Due to regional enmities and sensitivities in West Asia, Chabahar is not formally integrated into the IMEC. But pivotal strategic partners of India like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who are integral to IMEC, are not averse to pragmatically engaging with Iran.

Jeopardising India’s vantage point in Chabahar is in the interests of Pakistan — whose tensions with Iran have been rising — and China, which has built and runs the Gwadar port on Pakistan’s southwestern coast close to Chabahar. But Israel and Gulf countries are not inclined to throw a spanner in the works of India’s presence in Chabahar.

The other risk factor that India has to reckon with when it comes to deepening its strategic partnership with Iran is the shift in the United States (US) foreign policy priorities. Due to its opposition to American preferences, Iran has the distinction of being one of the most sanctioned countries in the world. India has been forced to scale down its imports of Iranian oil since 2019 due to tough sanctions imposed by Washington DC and the resultant difficulties in arranging shipping, insurance and payments.

Yet, it is noteworthy that India negotiated with the US to secure a carve-out for its Chabahar investments from the “maximum pressure” American sanctions campaign against Iran. As India’s “comprehensive global strategic partner”, the US has been made to understand that India’s rise rests on its expanded footprint across both sides of the Indo-Pacific. For stabilising and moderating Afghanistan and for checking the Chinese juggernaut in West Asia and Eurasia, India must have the freedom to manoeuvre and gain access to strategic locations such as the Gulf of Oman.

Just as India has not buckled under western pressure on the question of sanctions against Russia, insulating itself from western pressures over Iran is a litmus test of its success in juggling its multiple strategic partnerships and proving its indispensability to all sides. Chabahar is more than a metaphor for India’s strategic autonomy. It augurs India’s rise as a leading power that can persuade or compel other countries to accommodate its national interests. The departures of Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian will not alter the basic alignment of national interests between India and Iran, and New Delhi will look to consolidate this partnership come what may.

Sreeram Chaulia is professor and dean, School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University. The views expressed are personal

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