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Flying Under the Radar: Iranian Alternatives to Suez and Belt and Road

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Map of North South Transport Corridor (NSTC) from India to Europe

As Eurasia’s geopolitical sands shift, Iran is touting a sea and rail hook-up involving Iranian, Russian, and Indian ports that would link the sub-continent to northern Europe as a viable alternative to Egypt’s Suez Canal and addition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Iranian and Indian officials suggest the route would significantly cut shipping time and costs from India to Europe. Senior Indian Commerce Ministry official B B Swain said the hook up would reduce travel distance by 40 and cost by 30 percent.

The Iranian-Indian-Russian push is based on a two-decades old agreement with Russia and India to establish an International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) as well as more recent free trade agreements concluded by the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) with Iran and Singapore.

The agreements have fuelled Central, South, and Southeast Asian interest in the corridor even if the EAEU itself groups only a handful of countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan.

Exploiting the momentum, Russia has been nudging India to sign its own free trade agreement with the EAEU while the grouping is discussing an accord with the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

If successful, the Iranian push, backed by Russia and India, would anchor attempts by Iran to project itself as opposed to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as the key Middle Eastern player in Russian and Chinese ploys for regional dominance.

Leveraging geography and Central Asian distrust of past Saudi promotion of its ultra-conservative strand of Islam, Iran expects that kickstarting INSTC will give it a significant boost in its competition with the kingdom and the Emirates for the region’s hearts and minds.

INSTC would also strengthen Iran’s position as a key node in the Belt and Road on the back of a two-year old rail link between western China and Tehran that runs across Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

India’s ambassador to Russia, D B Venkatesh Varma, told a webinar hosted by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Industry and Commerce that he expected to bring shipping and insurance companies as well as other businesses and stakeholders together to advance the INSTC.

The Iranian-Indian-Russian push suggests that Iran is playing multiple cards in the geopolitical jockeying for the future of Eurasia amid much speculation about a draft Iranian proposal for a 25-year strategic partnership with Beijing that if agreed and implemented would inextricably hook the Islamic republic to China.

The INSTC would link Jawaharlal Nehru Port, India’s largest container port east of Mumbai, through the Iranian deep-sea port of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman, funded by India to bypass Pakistan, and its Caspian Sea port of Bandar-e-Anzali to Russia’s Volga River harbour of Astrakhan and onwards by rail to Europe.

Suez Canal Authority spokesman George Safwat dismisses assertions by Iranian and Russian officials that the link would cut shipping time from 40 days through the Suez Canal to somewhere between 25 and 28 days.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Mr. Safwat said it takes only 19 days for a container shipped from India through the Suez Canal to reach the German port city of Hamburg.

A search on Searates, Dubai ports management company DP World’s search engine for shipping times puts the transit time at 21 days.

Mr. Safwat further insisted that INSTC would be unable to match the Suez Canal’s capacity to accommodate more than one billion tons of cargo a year.

The Iranian push was boosted in March by an agreement between Russia and India that would enable the shipment of goods through the corridor on a single invoice within a matter of months.

“Within three months, traders from India and Russia could move goods between the two countries through Iran,” said V. Kalyana Rama, the chairman of India’s state-owned Container Corporation (Concor).

Indian sources close to the Chabahar project said in interviews that the ability to issue one bill of lading that would allow exporters to get a bank letter of credit coupled with an agreement by state-owned Russian Railways (RZD) to act as the carrier had removed key obstacles for INSTC.

The sources said shipping costs were likely to be pushed upwards by the fact that much of the cargo traffic would be originating in India rather than destined for India. “Empty containers on one leg adds to the freight cost,” one source said.

The Russia-India agreement nevertheless takes on added significance as countries seek to diversify their supply chains after the experience of bottlenecks during the coronavirus pandemic.

If successful, the corridor could benefit men like Adar Poonawalla whose Serum Institute of India is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer.

It may however not all be smooth sailing.

Chabahar, located in the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan, is not immune to the fallout of renewed Baloch nationalist violence in neighbouring Pakistan.

The violence, effecting investment in Gwadar, the Chinese backed port 70 kilometres down the coast in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, may give Chabahar a leg up but raises the spectre of proxy battles with Saudi Arabia and India suspected of supporting the nationalists for different reasons. Saudi support targets Iran while India’s focus is Pakistan, it’s longstanding nemesis.

In a further twist, Iran this week denied Indian media reports that it had dropped India as a partner in the development of a rail line from Chabahar to the border with Afghanistan because of delays in Indian funding.

Iran’s IRNA news agency, however, quoted Farhad Montaser, an official of the country’s Ports and Maritime Organization, as saying that Iran and India had failed to agree on Indian participation in developing Chabahar’s railway infrastructure during the original talks that secured Indian support for the port.

This would have included a 1,000-kilometre line to Sarakhs on the Iranian border with Turkmenistan. Iran has said it would fund the construction of railway infrastructure.

Indian analysts said in interviews that the government in Delhi had put participation by a state-owned Indian infrastructure company on the backburner because it may violate harsh US economic sanctions against Iran.

“We are very much in the game, but progress is slow due to the current political environment,” India’s Zeenews quoted government sources as saying.

That offers Gulf states at best temporary consolation. Uncertainty about the outcome of the November election in the United States that could sweep presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden into office holds out the prospect of an administration that would be more critical of Saudi policies and more willing to return to negotiations with Iran.

Author’s note: An initial version of this story was first published in Inside Arabia

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Justice delayed is justice denied. I lost my family to Iran Regime’s barbarity

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Mohammad Shafaei’s family- The toddler in his mother’s arm is Mohammad Shafaei

On May 4, over 1,100 families of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Iran wrote a letter to the international community. We called on the United Nations and European and American governments to take immediate action in preventing the regime from further destruction of their loved ones’ graves.

I was one of the signatories. I have lost six of my relatives to the regime’s cruelty. I was seven years old when my parents were arrested for their democratic ideals and activism.

My father, Dr. Morteza Shafaei, was a well-respected and popular physician in Isfahan. He was admired by people because he was extremely compassionate and giving to others. He was brutally executed by the regime in 1981 simply because he sought a democratic future for his family and his compatriots. The mullahs also killed my mother, two brothers, Majid (only 16) and Javad, and one of my sisters, Maryam, along with her husband.

By the age of 8, I had lost my entire family, save for one sister, as a result of the regime’s executions and crimes against humanity.

Mohammad Shafaei

The 1988 massacre stands as one of the most horrendous crimes against humanity after World War II. In the summer of that year, based on a religious decree issued by Khomeini, then-Supreme Leader of the theocratic regime in Iran, tens of thousands of political prisoners were liquidated. Most of the victims belonged to the principal democratic opposition movement Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).

It is believed that the regime massacred at least 30,000 political dissidents that year in the span of a few months. This much was confirmed by the designated heir to the regime’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri both in his published memoires and leaked audiotape in 2016, in which he condemned the ongoing crime against humanity in August 1988 during a meeting with high-ranking regime officials.

Those officials continue to serve the regime today in high-ranking positions. Ebrahim Raisi, for example, who was a member of the “death committees” in charge of rounding up and killing the political prisoners, is currently occupying the highly sensitive post of the Judiciary Chief. He is expected to announce his candidacy to run for President during the June election. After the June 2009 uprising, he said, “Moharebeh (waging war on God) is sometimes an organization, like the hypocrites (MEK). Anyone who helps the MEK in any way and under any circumstances, because it is an organized movement, the title of Moharebeh applies.” According the Islamic Punishment Act, the punishment for Moharebeh is death.

For years, the clerical regime has been systematically and gradually destroying the graves of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Tehran and other cities. As the world learns more about the killings and the international outrage grows, Tehran’s mullahs are scrambling to clear all traces of their crimes against humanity.

Most of us have forgotten where exactly our loved ones are buried, many of them in mass graves. The campaign for justice for victims of 1988 has gained greater prominence and broader scope. International human rights organizations and experts have described the massacre as a crime against humanity and called for holding the perpetrators of this heinous crime to account.

Paranoid of the repercussions of international scrutiny into this horrific atrocity, the Iranian regime has embarked on erasing the traces of the evidence on the massacre by destroying the mass graves where they are buried. The regime has tried to destroy the mass graves of massacred political prisoners in Tehran’s Khavaran Cemetery in the latest attempt. Previously, it destroyed or damaged the mass graves of the 1988 victims in Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mashhad, and elsewhere.

These actions constitute the collective torture of thousands of survivors and families of martyrs. It is another manifest case of crime against humanity.  

The UN and international human rights organizations must prevent the regime from destroying the mass graves, eliminating the evidence of their crime, and inflicting psychological torture upon thousands of families of the victims throughout Iran. 

Moreover, the Iranian public and all human rights defenders expect the United Nations, particularly the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet, to launch an international commission of inquiry to investigate the massacre of political prisoners and summon the perpetrators of this heinous crime before the International Court of Justice.

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Can Biden Bring Peace to the Middle East?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

As the fierce fighting between Israel and the Palestinians rages on, the Biden administration’s Middle East policy has been criticized for its relatively aloof, “stand back” approach that has resulted in the absence of any pressure on Israel to re-think its harsh mistreatment of the Palestinians, vividly demonstrated in the recent police attack at al-Aqsa mosque and the attempted eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, viewed by the Palestinians as part of Israel’s “ethnic cleansing.”

Consequently, a UN Security Council draft resolution on the crisis has been reportedly held up by US, which has prioritized the familiar narrative of “Israel’s right to self-defense” ad nauseam, without the benefit any nuances that would reveal any fresh thinking on the problem on the part of the Biden administration.  As in the past, the new crisis in Israel-Palestinian relations has sharpened the loyalties and alliances, in effect binding the US government closer to its Middle East ally under the rainstorm of Palestinian rocket attacks, highlighting Israel’s security vulnerabilities in today’s missile age.  Determined to crush the Palestinian resistance, the mighty Israeli army has been pulverizing Gaza while, simultaneously, declaring state of emergency in the Arab sections of Israel, as if there is a military solution to an inherently political problem.  What Israel may gain from its current military campaign is, by all indications, bound to be elusive of a perpetual peace and will likely sow the seed of the next chapter in the ‘intractable’ conflict in the future.  

Both sides are in violation of the international humanitarian laws that forbid the indiscriminate targeting of civilian population and, no matter how justified the Palestinian grievances, they too need to abide by international law and consider the alternative Gandhian path of non-violent resistance, notwithstanding the colossal power of Israeli army.

As the editors of Israel’s liberal paper, Haaretz, have rightly pointed out, the problem is the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is highly unpopular, unable to form a government, afflicted with a corruption case, and who has been appeasing the extremist elements in Israeli politics who have no qualm about the illegal expropriation of Palestinian lands.  Israeli politics for its own sake needs to move to the center, otherwise the Israeli society as a whole will suffer, as more and more educated Israelis will leave the country, Israel’s recent gains through the Abrahams accord with the conservative Arab states will be essentially wiped out, as these states will need to cater to the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiments at home or face serious legitimation problems, and Israel’s regional rivals led by Iran will continue to harvest from the present crisis.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any political will in Washington to spur a political shift in Israel that would secure better results in terms of the elusive Middle East peace and both President Biden and the Democratic Party establishment are concerned that their Republican opponents will seize on any tangible US pressure applied on Israel.  In other words, domestic US priorities will continue for the foreseeable future to hamper a much-needed corrective Washington influence on an ally that receives 4 billion dollar military aid annually and, yet, is unwilling to allow the White House to have any input on its handling of the Palestinians at home and the West Bank and Gaza.  

But, assuming for a moment that the Biden administration would somehow muster the will to stand up to Netanyahu and pressure him to cease its massive attacks on Gaza, then such a bold move would need to be coordinated with a deep Arab outreach that would, simultaneously, persuade the Palestinian groups led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to go along with a US-initiated cease-fire, followed by related efforts at UN and regional level to bring about the groundwork for a more enduring peace, such as by holding a new international peace conference, similar to the Oslo process.  

At the moment, of course, this is wishful thinking and the protagonists of both sides in this terrible conflict are more focused on scoring against each other than to partake in a meaningful peace process.  In other words, an important prerequisite for peace, that is the inclination for peaceful resolution of the conflict instead of resorting to arms, is clearly missing and can and should be brought about by, first and foremost, a capable US leadership, sadly hitherto missing.

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Israel-Palestine Conflict Enters into Dangerous Zone

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Palestinians react as Israeli police fire a stun grenade during clashes at Damascus Gate on Laylat al-Qadr during the holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem's Old City, May 9, 2021. /Reuters

Since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-April 2021, tension has escalated, with frequent clashes between police and Palestinians. The threatened eviction of some Palestinian families in East Jerusalem has also caused rising anger. But when Israeli security forces entered and attacked the unarmed Muslim worshipers, damaged the property, and humiliated the families, the situation turned into conflict.

Since the irrational and illogical creation of the Jewish State in the middle of the Muslim World, the tension started and emerged into few full-fledged armed conflicts and wars like; 1948–49, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006 wars/ conflicts. Tensions are often high between Israel and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Gaza is ruled by a Palestinian group called Hamas, which has fought Israel many times. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank complain that they’re suffering because of Zionists’ expansionist actions. Israel’s severe violations of human rights and extreme atrocities against Palestinians left Palestinians with no option other than protest and agitate. But Israel suppresses them and uses all dirty tricks to keep them silent.

It is worth mentioning that the United Nations Security Council has passed several resolutions to settle the Israel-Palestine issue peacefully. But Israel has not implemented either of them and kept using force to push them out and settle Jews in their land.

The State of Israel has been enjoying undue supported by the US, irrespective of who is president, but all of them support Israel unconditionally. Israel is the most favored nation of the US and the largest beneficiary of American aid, assistance, and support.

Ex-President Donald Trump helped Israel establish diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Donald Trump favored Netanyahu, dramatically moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His daughter and son-in-law were the facilitators for his support to Israel.

Till last news, at least 56 Palestinians have died under an array of aerial bombardments of the Gaza Strip. Five Israelis were killed too. Rockets, bullets, and rocks are flying around Israel and the Palestinian territories with catastrophic intensity in the latest wave of violence that periodically marks the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Palestinian protesters run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli security forces amid clashes at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound on May 10, 2021, ahead of a planned march to commemorate Israel’s takeover of Jerusalem in 1967 Six-Day War.  Security forces have set on fire the centuries-old holy Mosque. Serious communal violence has broken out within Israel between Arab citizens and Jews. Fires were lit, a synagogue burned, a Muslim cemetery trashed, police cars set aflame, and an Arab-Israeli man killed. The mayor of Lod termed it a “civil war.”

The ferocity of the fast-escalating conflict might be extremely dangerous as Israel uses hi-tech, advanced, lethal weapons. A week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed close to losing power after the climax of four inconclusive elections. The outbreak of hostilities has allowed him the opportunity to make his latest appearance as a tough guy and ended coalition talks by rival politicians. He might politicize the conflict in his favor.

There is a severe danger of spreading this conflict to a large-scale war, which might engulf the regional countries. There already exists tension among Israel and few regional powers. The recent Israeli attacks on Russian bases in Syrian may also widen the conflict.

Any war in the middle-East will have dire consequences globally. It is appealed to the UN and all peace-loving nations and individuals to speed up all-out efforts to stop the conflict at this initial stage and avert further bloodshed. It is demanded that the Israel-Palestine issue must be settled according to the resolutions passed by UNSC. Wish immediate peace, sustainable peace, and permanent peace in the Middle East and globally.

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