US President Donald Trump’s fresh sanctions against Iran have prompted India to review its crucial connectivity project in West Asia – the Chabahar port.
During his visit to Tehran in May 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured the top Iranian leadership that New Delhi would complete the construction works of two terminals and five berths at the strategically located port on the Gulf of Oman in 18 months. PM Modi made the assurance after the West Asian country struck a nuclear deal with world powers that eventually encouraged the Barack Obama administration to withdraw a series of sanctions imposed on Iran.
However, President Donald Trump made it difficult for India to complete the project within the stipulated time frame by imposing fresh sanctions on Iran a couple of days ago. Washington made the move immediately after Tehran test-fired two ballistic missiles.
The US Treasury Department said in a statement that 13 individuals and 12 companies – based out of Iran, Lebanon, China and the UAE – were asked not to ‘do business’ with major Indian companies involved in the Chabahar project. Indian foreign policy experts have expressed serious concern over the US’ move, as they believe that fresh sanctions against Iran could effectively lock in Indian investments in the port.
Gulshan Sachdeva, senior professor in energy studies at Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, told the press: “Any negative development between the US and Iran is not good for India. The way the Trump administration is going, the future with Iran is tough to predict.”
Experts consider Washington’s decision as a huge blow for India, which has long eyed the Chabahar port as its gateway to Central Asia and Afghanistan. During PM Modi’s 2016 visit to Tehran, India and Iran also signed a deal to jointly construct a railway track connecting Chabahar to Zahedan, a city near the Iranian border with Afghanistan. The Indian premier, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani even oversaw the signing of a trilateral transit treaty that allows India and Afghanistan to trade through Chabahar, bypassing Pakistan. These two projects are strategically crucial for India, as neighbouring China has financed the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province. The Chabahar port, just 72km west along the coast from Gwadar, offers India a counter.
Sachdeva explained: “These investments and plans were natural for India to proceed on when there was a certain amount of certainty in the situation between the US and Iran.” With February 3 sanctions demonstrating the Trump administration’s willingness to punish those who engage with Iran, India may decide to wait to first see whether an escalation in tensions leads to the unravelling of the nuclear agreement. But, New Delhi is well aware of the fact that such a decision could prompt Iran to find new partners for the Chabahar project. In that case, India’s relations with Iran will deteriorate.
The Iranian government has already slammed India for delaying work on the Chabahar project, saying that it is closely monitoring the Indo-Iranian economic partnership. As India-Iran ties are going through very difficult times mainly because of Washington’s sudden change in its ‘Iran policy’, experts have advised the Modi government to take time before making a final decision on the Chabar project.