Amid reports of Chabahar snub, no role for India in Iran's Farzad-B gas field

MEA calls reports on Chabahar project 'speculative', says delay at Iran's end

Chabahar-Port-boats Representational image: Boats anchored at Chabahar Bay | Amirhossein Nikroo/WikiCommons

It is official. India does not have a role, at least in the present, in developing the Farzad-B gas field in Iran, even though the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation was involved in the discovery of the natural gas reserves there.

"In January 2020, we were informed that in the immediate future, Iran would develop the field on its own and would like to involve India appropriately at a later stage. The matter remains under discussion,'' said Anurag Srivastava, spokesperson, ministry of external affairs, at his weekly briefing today.

The ONGC's overseas arm, ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL), had been in talks to develop the offshore oil reserve in the Persian Gulf, but discussions moved slowly initially, with neither side agreeing to the other's rates. The US imposed sanctions on Iran in May 2018 and India subsequently stopped its crude imports from Iran in 2019, a move likely to have influenced Iran's decision to keep India out of the gas field.

Srivastava was not forthcoming either on reports that Iran has dumped India from the 628km Chabahar-Zahedan railway line project. While not directly responding to reports that Iran was upset with India not releasing funds for the project, he alluded that the slow progress on the project was from Tehran's side. He said that Indian Railway Construction (IRCON) was appointed by India to assess the feasibility of the project, for which it was working with an Iranian railway ministry company, CDTIC.

"IRCON has completed the site inspection and review of the feasibility report. Detailed discussions were thereafter held on other relevant aspects of the project, which had to take into account the financial challenges that Iran was facing. In December 2019, these issues were reviewed in detail at the 19th India-Iran Joint Commission Meeting in Tehran. The Iranian side was to nominate an authorised entity to finalise outstanding technical and financial issues. This is still awaited,'' he said.

According to reports, Iran has claimed it wants to go ahead with this project, too, by itself. However, rich Chinese bankrolling, in the form of a $400 billion commitment to fund the development of oil, gas and transport infrastructure in Iran, has given the investment-strapped country a lifeline.

Srivastava did not speak about plans for the Chabahar Phase II project either. India's plan in the Chabahar project originally was to develop two terminals and operate five berths on a ten-year lease. India was also assured that it would get access to the free trade zone in the port's hinterland, as well as an opportunity to be part of developing the railway line to Zahedan near the Afghanistan border. The Chabahar role India saw for itself was to create a multi-mode transport link up to Afghanistan on the one hand and also one deep into Central Asia on the other.

Chabahar was positioned as a key port in the ambitious International North-South Transit Corridor, linking Central Asia, Russia and going up to Europe. If not a counter to China's huge Belt and Road Project (BRI)—the idea for the Chabahar project dates back to 2003—the port project also marked India's foray into connectivity projects beyond its immediate neighbourhood.

Srivastava called reports about the Chabahar project "speculative'' and said that India has a long-standing commitment to the port project, which was operationalised when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Iran in 2016. He said that "since then, despite the difficulties posed by the sanctions situation, there has been significant progress on the port project. An Indian company has been operating the port since 2018 and has steadily scaled up the traffic at the port.''

He said that since December 2018 (when the port began functioning), 82 vessels have been handled there, including 52 in the last 12 months alone. The port also handled 12 lakh tonnes of bulk cargo and 8,200 containers.

"Proactive measures are currently underway to increase the usage of Chabahar Port, both for Afghanistan and Central Asia,'' he said.