The passage of India's first consignment of wheat through Iran's Chabahar port to Afghanistan recently is significant for several reasons. For one, it will ease to a considerable extent India and Afghanistan's long-standing frustration with Pakistan's refusal to allow overland trade between the two countries. Since the fall of the Taliban, India has been sending reconstruction aid to Afghanistan. But this has been limited as India has had to transport it either by air or take the longer and more expensive sea route via the Bandar Abbas port. Unlike Bandar Abbas, Chabahar is a deep-sea port. The latter is also closer to Indian shores, making trade through it more economical. Additionally, Chabahar is well linked to the Zaranj-Delaram highway, which is connected with Afghanistan's Garland Highway. Indian cargo can reach all of Afghanistan's main towns and cities. Chabahar port could act as a springboard for Indian exports to Central Asian countries, too, and perhaps even Eurasia and Europe. For decades, India's overland trade with Central Asia has been held hostage by Pakistani intransigence. Trade via Chabahar will change that. Landlocked Afghanistan, too, will heave a sigh of relief. Access to Chabahar port will free it of dependence on Karachi port and thus Pakistani pressure.
India, Iran and Afghanistan have overcome many challenges to make trade and transit through Chabahar port a reality. But challenges remain. Just 72 km away from Chabahar port is Pakistan's Gwadar port, the terminal point of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that begins in Kashgar, China. Can Chabahar survive competition from Gwadar? Chabahar port would need more than India-Afghan trade to stay afloat. Several countries, including Japan and South Korea, which are interested in the project, could be roped in.
Even as the arrival of the first Indian wheat consignment at Chabahar evokes satisfaction and smiles in India, Iran and Afghanistan, storm clouds are gathering. US President Donald Trump's recent "decertifying" of the nuclear deal with Iran could eventually lead to the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran. Such sanctions could inhibit Indian and European companies from using Chabahar port, although US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently said, the US "understands" India's need for ties with Iran. Additionally, the poor security situation in the Sistaan-Baluchistan province where Chabahar is located is reason for concern due to its restive Sunni population in Shia-dominated Iran. The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, too, could undermine the region's capacity to tap Chabahar's full potential. But India now has a strategic port of call, and a play in the new Great Game in that part of Asia. It cannot but do everything it can to come out a winner.