If one were to look at discussions pertaining to South Asia, India’s current tensions with China, and strained ties with neighbors – especially Nepal – in recent months have drawn immense attention. One of the other important developments, which is likely to have a significant impact on South Asia’s geopolitical and economic dynamics is the Iran-China 25 year agreement, which will impact not just bilateral relations, but geo-political, economic and security dynamics in South Asia. For one, Pakistan’s ties with Iran are likely to strengthen, and Islamabad is likely to pitch its bandwagon firmly with China and Iran. Second, it has been argued, that China’s clout in Afghanistan is likely to rise, as a result of the 25 year agreement with Iran, not just in terms of economic influence, but also strategic context
India-Iran ties and the Chabahar Project
India too has begun to pay closer attention to Iran after the agreement, especially after it gave signals, that it could be elbowed out of the Chabahar-Zahedan (near the Afghan border) rail way line and important component Chabahar Port project.(India’s gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia)
A clear reiteration of this point is the recent visits by Indian Defence Minister,Rajnath Singh and Foreign Minister, S Jaishankar to Tehran. Both Indian ministers met with senior Iranian officials, and discussed issues pertaining to bilateral cooperation, with an emphasis on the progress of the Chabahar project, and regional security.
It would be pertinent to point out, that Tehran has expressed its frustration with India with regard to funding, as well as the slow progress of the Chabahar project. Bilateral relations had witnessed a downhill slope, after India stopped purchasing oil in May 2019 (US had had removed the temporary exemptions from sanctions which had provided to India and some other countries). Iran criticized India for toeing the US line, and began to warm up to Pakistan. Significantly, Tehran criticized India for the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019
Iran’s Supreme leaderAli Khamenei said
“We’re concerned about the Muslims’ situation in Kashmir. We have good relations with India, but we expect the Indian government to adopt a just policy towards the noble people of Kashmir and prevent the oppression and bullying of Muslims in this region.”
Iran had also criticized India’s policies like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and made strong statements against the Delhi riots in February 2020, expressing concern with regard to the safety of Muslims in India. Said Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif:
‘…We urge Indian authorities to ensure the well being of ALL Indians & not let senseless thuggery prevail. Path forward lies in peaceful dialogue and rule of law.’
Iranian Supreme leader made even stronger remarks.
Recent visits by top officials are an indicator, that New Delhi is keen to ensure, that the Chabahar Project remains on track, and that on Afghanistan, Tehran does not totally toe Beijing’s line on Afghanistan. Another important consideration is possible change of guard in Washington DC. It is likely, that Joe Biden will follow a different approach, from Donald Trump, vis-à-vis Iran, and is likely to be open to engagement with Tehran (this will provide India space to pursue economic links with Iran).
While India has been seeking to amend ties with Iran, with an eye on its vision for regional connectivity, Pakistan has recently agreed to become part of the Quadrilateral Traffic in Transit Agreement( QTTA which will enable it to circumvent Afghanistan. The Karakorum highway will be Pakistan’s gateway to Central Asia. It connects Gilgit-Baltistan to China’s Xinjiang region, which further links with Central Asian States
One of the reasons cited by Pakistan, for going ahead with QTTA Kabul has been reluctant to provide access to Pakistani products for reaching out to Central Asian states. Kabul has put the pre-condition that it would only allow the same, if Pakistan allowed land access for Indian goods to reach Afghanistan.
During Uzbekistan’s Deputy Prime Minister Sardor Umur Zakov recent visit to Pakistan, he met with Pakistan PM Imran Khan, and senior officials. Possible ways of bolstering bilateral economic ties and connectivity were explored, and issues pertaining to regional security were discussed
Connectivity and trade are important, and for very long suggestions have been made by commentators for New Delhi and Islamabad not just to strengthen economic linkages, but also to explore regional connectivity initiatives together. The strained relationship between India and Pakistan has meant that such suggestions are nothing, but a mere pipe dream.
At the inauguration of the Kartarpur Religious Corridor in November 2019, Navjot Singh Sidhu, a Former Indian cricketer and Congress legislator from Punjab (India) had also pitched for imaginative thinking, and to foster economic cooperation between the two Punjab’s.
“My dream is that a trader should start after having breakfast from Amritsar in the morning and come to Lahore and have biryani here, do his business and go back to Amritsar,” he said.
While in the immediate future all countries have to look out for their economic interests and connectivity is a key tool for the same. In the longer run, it would make sense for New Delhi and Islamabad to resume not just bilateral trade, but also to set aside differences, and to work towards examining synergies in the area of regional connectivity. The ultimate aim should be India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran connectivity and a zero sum approach should not drive regional connectivity initiatives.