Clouds of uncertainty hanging over the future of India-Iran relations have cleared significantly following Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zarif’s visit to India. In a major step that is likely to boost bilateral relations and also, India’s strategic reach in Afghanistan and Central Asia, Iran has invited India to enhance its role in Chabahar port. He invited Indian private investment in developing the second phase of Chabahar port. More importantly, he offered India control over this strategic port. India and Iran have been discussing joint development of Chabahar port for many years. However, progress on the ground has moved at a snail’s pace. A major part of the blame for this lies with India. As its relations with the US warmed a decade ago, India pulled away from Iran and began soft pedalling on various bilateral initiatives such as the Chabahar port project. Fearing that its investments in Iran would suffer as western sanctions on the oil-rich country took effect, India reduced its business with Tehran. It also voted against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The cumulative impact of these was a perceptible cooling of bilateral relations. That is now poised to change. Zarif’s visit signals that Iran is willing to set aside misunderstandings of the past to enhance cooperation with India.
A greater role at Chabahar port will provide India with a presence at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman, one of the most strategically important waterways in the world given its proximity to the oil fields and its role in seaborne trade of oil. In 2013, Pakistan handed over management of Gwadar port to a Chinese company for 40 years, triggering anxiety in India. Possible control over Chabahar port, which lies just 72 km west of Gwadar, will enable India to counter the negative implications of a Chinese presence in the region for India’s security.
Iran and India need to hurry up on finalising and operationalising the agreement on trade and transit via Chabahar. This could boost India’s role in Afghanistan and Central Asia – it will provide India with overland access to the region via Chabahar port, which it currently lacks – and also, transform the Afghan and Iranian economies. Larger India-Iran cooperation provides the two countries with an opening to play a larger regional, even global role. New Delhi and Tehran must grab the opportunity that awaits them. India must draw inspiration from China. The speed and enthusiasm with which Beijing has worked to make its plans for Gwadar port a reality is worthy of emulation.