Tensions between the United States and Iran are at an all-time high. And, if hostilities do break out, it would be a huge geopolitical setback for India for multiple reasons, not least because of its impact on oil prices.
Ever since President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran and re-imposed economic sanctions, pressures have been building. The downing of an American surveillance drone by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the subsequent threat by Trump of a retaliatory strike has made matters worse for regional security. Iran has already declared that it would soon breach the limit on nuclear material agreed upon in the 2015 nuclear deal, further escalating the crisis. The US is also planning to send additional troops to the region.
Although the mediatory mission that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe undertook to help lower the political temperature between Iran and the US did not bear fruits, this de-escalation mission to Tehran should ideally have been undertaken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even at the risk of its imminent failure. The reasons are not too difficult to understand.
The Chabahar gateway
New Delhi has a specific reason to be extremely concerned about the Iran situation. India believes that its strategic ambitions in Central Asia can be realised with Iranian support. India’s commitment to building Iran’s Chabahar Port on the Gulf of Oman, connecting India to Afghanistan, through which it can gain access to Central Asia and Eurasia bypassing Pakistan, is a case in point. It is also a counterweight to the Gwadar port, a China-Pakistan joint venture.
When the 2015 nuclear deal on Iran was clinched, it had created interesting possibilities. There was widespread feeling in India’s strategic circles, and even among some in Washington, that the US could begin moving troops and supplies through Chabahar. This was the easiest way to reduce America’s over-dependence on Pakistan and to put more pressure on its security establishment to stop its double game in Afghanistan. Following this optimistic scenario, Iran, India and Afghanistan signed a trilateral agreement in 2016, which allows the three countries to open new connectivity routes by converting Chabahar port into a transit hub.
But the regional context has perhaps changed remarkably with Trump’s determination to exit from the bloody Afghan theatre. And by withdrawing the US from Iran nuclear deal, Washington not only lost a huge opportunity to develop an alternate route benefiting American interests in Afghanistan, but also put a question mark over the viability of the Chabahar project.
New Delhi has substantially reduced its energy dependence on Iran due to sustained pressure from Washington, and the India-backed Chabahar Port has so far remained outside the purview of American sanctions on Iran reimposed in 2018. But if the US-Iran relations deteriorate further, India’s Chabahar geopolitics is bound to suffer irreversible damage. No port can survive without a viable commercial ecosystem. And the Gwadar port is already far ahead of Chabahar port in terms of infrastructure and business potential. If military tensions rise, it will hit commercial activities in Chabahar port. This would be music to Pakistan and China’s ears.
The importance of Gwadar Port
Although China has been Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friend’ for more than half a century, the scope and dimension of political, economic and military cooperation between the two have been on the rise ever since Xi Jinping came to power. Xi unveiled the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a way to make China a preeminent global power, and Pakistan’s geostrategic importance for China also increased manifold.
The geography of Gwadar is very interesting. Situated at the mouth of the Arabian Sea, the Gwadar port is part of the Balochistan province in Pakistan. The geostrategic significance of the Gwadar port, on which the success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) depends, can’t be overestimated. China has pumped in big money to develop the port. If China sees the Gwadar port as a convenient bridge to connect with the Middle East, Pakistan has reasons to regard the port as a counterweight to the growing strategic convergence between India and the US.
If Iran gets militarily punished by the US, Tehran’s resultant diplomatic isolation and economic suffering would present China and Pakistan with the greatest opportunity to integrate Chabahar with Gwadar. This would defeat the very foundation of India’s geopolitical plans in Afghanistan and Central Asia through the Chabahar port. This will also increase Chinese influence in the region.
Forcing Iran’s hand
Afghanistan has been totally dependent on Pakistan’s Karachi port for its imports and exports. Without access to Chabahar, it will not be possible for Afghanistan to pursue an independent foreign policy. And this is certainly not what India wants for its regional ally.
China and Pakistan have been working overtime to woo Iran to integrate into their strategic nexus against India. Iran is not oblivious to the fact that unlike India, China has a history of seeking complete control over the port infrastructure it invests in. Extremely sensitive about its sovereignty and strategic autonomy, Iran has avoided this option so far. But the worsening economic situation may soon force Iran’s hands.
Last month, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, during his interactions with Pakistan’s civil-military leadership in Islamabad, reportedly said that Iran has “a proposal for the government of Pakistan for connection between Chabahar and Gwadar…. We believe that Chabahar and Gwadar can complement each other.” Can India afford to ignore Iran’s overtures to China and Pakistan?
Trouble for India
Currently, India has two important issues with the Gwadar port. Most of India’s crude oil from West Asia comes via the Strait of Hormuz, whose geographic proximity to Gwadar can make Indian shipments particularly vulnerable to Pakistan’s naval actions if hostilities break out. Another worry relates to China’s growing involvement in the Gwadar port. Institutionalised presence at Gwadar port gives China easy access to the Arabian Sea, and allows China to closely monitor India’s naval movements. If India senses a Chinese threat from Gwadar, it has the option to make military use of Chabahar.
Due to its locational advantages, Pakistan will continue to create trouble for India’s foreign policymakers. These Pakistani actions will also receive wholehearted Chinese support. Beijing has also invested heavily in developing ports in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as part of its ambitious strategy to contain India. Russia’s newfound interest in boosting ties with Pakistan has already complicated India’s position.
At a moment when China is trying to fill the leadership void left by the retreating US, mercurial Trump’s tantrums have acquired potentially dangerous dimensions for India’s regional geopolitical aims. There is no doubt that if the Chabahar port really gets entangled in Trump’s reckless machinations, it will be a major geostrategic setback for India. New Delhi cannot avoid addressing this challenge even though Narendra Modi may not be interested in shuttle diplomacy.
The author is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice. Views are personal.