It was the turn of the century, and the National Democratic Alliance led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in power in Delhi. India had promised the war-torn Afghanistan an aid of one lakh tonnes of wheat. The question that subsequently confronted the Indian bureaucracy was how to get it across to Kabul. Pakistan would not allow Indian trucks to pass through. India could ship the wheat to the Bandar Abbas port in Iran, but it would be too expensive to airlift it to Afghanistan. Finally, after much deliberation, it was decided to send fortified biscuits instead of wheat. Pakistan allowed biscuit-laden trucks from India to pass through, but refused permission for everything else. The restriction, however, did not apply to goods sent from Afghanistan to India. It was an arrangement that did not make any sense.
A decade and a half later, on May 22, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi set foot on Iranian soil for the first time, the situation has not changed much regarding transit facilities across India's extended neighbourhood. The North South Transport Corridor—a plan which was mooted decades ago to link India, Iran, Central Asia, Russia and Europe—still remains on paper. Access to Afghanistan by road is impossible from India and the most promising option seems to be Route 606, the 218-km-long highway linking Delaram in Afghanistan with Zaranj in Iran. The road provides the landlocked Afghanistan an opening to access the ports on the Arabian Sea, and gives an opening to countries like India. Despite the threat of terrorist attacks, the route is the best option for India to open a direct link to Afghanistan. A link connecting Route 606 with the Chabahar port in Iran exists, but India has been missing from the party till now. On May 24, Modi sat with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani in Tehran, to ink an agreement to develop the Chabahar port and a transport corridor.
Modi said the $500-million project opened a new chapter for the region. “We stand together in unity of our purpose.... We want to link with the world. But, better connectivity among ourselves is also our priority,” he said.
The Chabahar development agreement could be the answer to the regional connectivity crisis and could hopefully turn into a game-changer. For India, forging a closer bond with Iran, at a time when it is being wooed by the world after the lifting of international nuclear sanctions, is essential. But India has a lot of catching up to do. Within four days of the sanctions being lifted, Chinese President Xi Jinping reached Tehran, thus becoming the first major global leader to visit Iran. During the visit, the two countries signed 17 deals, including the One Belt, One Road initiative, which India believes is a move by China to bring in countries into its sphere of influence. From $52 billion in 2014, China and Iran are aiming to increase their trade to $600 billion in the next ten years. In comparison, trade between India and Iran was worth just $14 billion during the same period. Even if the two countries manage to double it in five years—which is what the officials are aiming to—it would still be just a drop in the ocean compared with Sino-Iranian trade.
With China's alarming growth of influence in the region, access to Chabahar is vital for India. It will help India counter the strategic advantage China is likely to gain from the Gwadar port in Pakistan, which is being developed by China. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor—of which Gwadar is the centrepiece—has the potential to transform the Pakistan economy. Chinese companies have promised to pump in $46 billion to the project in the next six years. It seems China is going all out for its “all-weather friend’’. It recently objected to India’s bid for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group till Pakistan, too, is made a member.
In such a scenario, forging strong ties with Iran is important for India. India so far has had a “complicated relationship” with Iran, according to Tanvi Madan, director of The India Project at Brookings Institution. India's vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2009 over uranium enhancement remains a sore point. An Indian official admitted that the move, no doubt influenced by the United States, could have been handled better, by keeping Iran in the loop.
Modi, however, is optimistic. “Our historical ties may have seen their share of ups and downs. But it is time to regain the past glory of traditional ties and links. Time has come for us to march together,” he said.
India needs to work hard to ensure that the goodwill generated by Modi is not squandered. But the Indian track record has been far from satisfactory in this regard. For instance, after the Sittwe port in Myanmar—which was redeveloped with Indian assistance—missed several deadlines, a Burmese general remarked that India was truly a NATO country: No Action, Talk Only. The Iranians would agree. Four years ago, when Ali Akbar Velayati, senior adviser to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, visited India, he reportedly told an Indian diplomat who casually brought up the North South Corridor project, “Yes, some people still remember it.” For the Iranian, it was ancient history. Similarly, the road to signing the Chabahar deal has been long winding as the talks stopped and started many times.
Still, the Chabahar project is a welcome move. “It has been very good. We have gone back to the old track of building infrastructure,’’ said former foreign secretary Shashank. “India has been tied up with dealing with the US, nuclear issues, WTO issues, China and Pakistan. Sadly, we have not built up the capacity to deal with the challenges of other projects in the past ten years. It is important to look at energy security and connectivity related matters,” he said.
Apart from infrastructure development, improving ties with Iran is important for India as it is home to the second largest Shia population in the world after Iran. Better ties are essential for regional stability and cooperation against terrorism.
So, has Modi's visit been successful, apart from the Chabahar deal? Although India and Iran have signed 12 deals covering a range of fields, including banking relations and energy cooperation, no major agreements have been signed in the crucial energy sector. The “financial closure” in the Farzad B gas fields is still in the “pipeline.” Meena Singh Roy, research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in Delhi, said the absence of energy deals was a major gap. “The deals, especially in the area of science and technology, encourage seminars and conferences, which have been happening,” she said. “I think the Iranians would have expected more. But the visit built up the political environment to the next level. There should be more such high-level visits to sustain the momentum.”