Bypassing Pakistan?

India signs a $500 million investment deal with Iran

Bypassing Pakistan?
On Monday, Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Iran in 15 years, as he landed in Tehran for a two-day trip. While 12 agreements were signed by Modi and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, it is India’s $500 million investment that hogged the limelight in the build up to the tour.

Chabahar Port located near the Iran-Pakistan border is touted as the counterpart to Gwadar Port, which is just over 60 miles away. Chabahar Port would be the culmination point of a transit route from India to Iran, bypassing Pakistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani joined Modi and Rouhani to sign a trilateral transit agreement designed to boost trade by easing the passage of goods between the India, Afghanistan and Iran.

“This will open new routes for India, Iran and Afghanistan to connect among themselves and that India and Iran also share a crucial stake in peace, stability and prosperity of the region,” Modi said while talking to the media in Tehran. “The past history of our ties has been rich. President Rouhani and I would leave no stone unturned to work for its glorious future. Our friendship will be a factor of stability in our region.”

Modi and Rouhani had earlier met in Ufa last year where, according to reports, the details for this trip were finalised. The Indian PM’s trip to Tehran comes 50 days after he visited Riyadh where he signed economic and military deals.
President Rouhani was careful not to alienate Islamabad

“Iran’s lure has obviously increased since the sanctions have been more or less lifted,” says a senior Indian diplomat wishing anonymity. “Iran was the second largest oil supplier to India until 2011, and energy of course forms an important component of the relations. But the transit rout towards Chabahar is a lot more than a financial deal or an economic breakthrough.”

The Indian diplomat believes that the trilateral agreement with Iran and Afghanistan, serves to ‘counterbalance’ the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). “Everyone is talking about how Chabahar Port is India’s effort to do one over Pakistan, by ensuring ease in trade without having to traverse Pakistani borders, but it’s also equally about China and New Delhi’s statement to Beijing regarding its own credentials as a regional power.”

Former Chairman of Senate’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Akram Zaki believes that Pakistan has no reason to be apprehensive about Chabahar Port. “There are ports nearby in Dubai and Abu Dhabi as well, why should we be concerned by this deal?” he asks. “India has its own interests – just like Iran and Afghanistan – and we have our own interests. This agreement does not in any way jeopardise Pakistan’s position in the region, or the importance of Gwadar Port.”

Zaki says Pakistan enjoys historic relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Modi’s recent visits to the two Middle East rivals should not impact Islamabad’s relations with the two states. “It was Pakistan that was mediating between Tehran and Riyadh when their bilateral ties had reached boiling point. There is no country in the world that is in a better position to balance relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran than Pakistan.”

The Indian diplomat agrees that balancing Saudi-Iran relations is a challenge, but he believes that Modi seems to be up for it. “Modi gave Rouhani a rare seventh-century Kufic manuscript of the Holy Quran, which is attributed to Hazrat Ali (RA). Similarly he gave a gold-plated replica of Kerala’s Cheraman Juma Masjid to King Salman, which was first mosque built in India. As a representative of the secular Indian state, he is respecting the sentiments of both Shia and Sunni Muslims and steering clear of ideological divisions that have marred the Muslim world.”

A Foreign Office official speaking off the record conceded that while Modi’s visits to Tehran and Saudi Arabia, or the opening of the Chabahar Port do not perturb Islamabad, Pakistan and Iran have ‘quite a few things on the negotiation table’. “It is natural for analysts to see every Indian agreement through the Pakistani prism and vice versa, but our concerns lie elsewhere,” he says.

The official says Pakistan has security concerns which haven’t been properly addressed. “Mullah Akhtar Mansour is believed to have entered Pakistan from Iran. He is also said to have had meetings with Iranian officials and Taliban leaders located there,” he says. The Afghan Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour was killed by a US drone strike on Monday in Balochistan.

“Let’s not forget that RAW spy Kulbhushan Yadav came from the Iranian border as well, and was arrested from Chaman. Our primary concern, hence, is the infiltration of militants and spies from areas where India has established its stronghold.”

While reiterating the economic importance of the agreements signed with India and Afghanistan, President Rouhani was careful not to alienate Pakistan. “It is not merely an economic document but a political and regional one,” he said on Monday. “Today’s agreement will not be against any country and the activities of the three countries will be to the interest of the whole region,” he added. “Other countries too can join this document of partnership in future.”