India flagged off a shipment of wheat for Afghanistan through Iran’s Chabahar port—marking the operationalization of the port for the trans-shipment of goods from India to the landlocked country.
The development is seen as a significant one as it torpedoes Pakistan’s veto over trade between India and Afghanistan—a move aimed at circumscribing India’s role in Afghanistan. And it comes almost 15 years after India and Iran first agreed to develop the Chabahar port to ease connectivity bottlenecks for New Delhi in reaching out to landlocked Central Asia and Afghanistan. It also follows US president Donald Trump in August calling on India to play a larger role in stabilizing war-torn Afghanistan as he announced a revamped security plan to defeat a resurgent Taliban.
On Sunday, Afghan foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani joined his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj through a joint video conference as the latter in New Delhi flagged off a ship carrying the first consignment of wheat from India’s Kandla port to Afghanistan.
“The shipment is part of commitment made by the Government of India to supply 1.1 million tonnes of wheat for the people of Afghanistan on grant basis,” an Indian foreign ministry statement said. “Six more wheat shipments will be sent to Afghanistan over the next few months,” it said.
“The wheat shipment is a landmark moment as it will pave the way for operationalisation of the Chabahar port as an alternate, reliable and robust connectivity for Afghanistan. It will open up new opportunities for trade and transit from and to Afghanistan and enhance trade and commerce between the three countries (India, Iran, Afghanistan) and the wider region,” the statement added.
It was in 2003 that India and Iran first agreed to develop the Chabahar port, located in the Gulf of Oman near Iran’s border with Pakistan, to allow New Delhi to reach markets in Afghanistan and landlocked Central Asia. The project was delayed due to international sanctions on Iran over its suspect nuclear programme and India’s focus on concluding a civil nuclear pact with the US. Interest in the project was rekindled in 2013 after Iran and the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany reached an interim agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme and some sanctions were lifted.
And in May last year, India, Iran and Afghanistan signed a trilateral trade pact when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Tehran to enable the movement of goods from Chabahar to Afghanistan.
The Chabahar port is also less than 100km from Pakistan’s Chinese-built port of Gwadar, which is part of the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor project (CPEC) aimed at opening up an energy and trade corridor from the Gulf to western China. The CPEC is also a strand of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative that aims to connect around 60 countries across Asia, Africa and Europe through a series of roads, railways and ports.
When linked to the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), the Chabahar-Zahedan-Zaranj corridor would connect South Asia on one hand and Europe on the other, Modi had said. INSTC is an ambitious multimodal transport system established in 2000 by Iran, Russia and India to promote transportation cooperation. It is planned to connect the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea through Iran and then onwards to St. Petersburg and northern Europe through Russia.
It was expected that a 2010 US-supported pact between Afghanistan and Pakistan on transit trade would be extended to India to allow Indian goods to pass through Pakistan. But that floundered when Pakistan refused to allow Afghan trucks to come up to the Indian border at Attari, Punjab, or take back Indian goods. At present, Afghan trucks with Afghan products come up to Torkham on Afghan-Pakistan border where the goods are loaded onto Pakistan trucks that in turn come up to the India-Pakistan border at Wagah. Once the goods are offloaded, the trucks go back into Pakistan empty, an Indian official said.
With the US refusing to certify that Iran was complying with its commitments under the international nuclear pact, there were doubts that India’s plans to use Chabahar for trade with Kabul could come under a cloud once again. Last week, however, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said that the US did not intend to “interfere with legitimate business activities that are going on with other businesses, whether they be from Europe, India, or agreements that are in place that promote economic development and activity to the benefit of our friends and allies”.