What is Chabahar project and how should it be portrayed?

On May 23 and 24, 2016, Tehran played host to the prime minister of the world’s second most populous country, the world’s fourth economic power and one of the emerging powers in Asia. On the other hand, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, was the guest of one of the world’s biggest holders of energy resources and one of the most important actors in the Middle East. Iran not only guarantees security of a large part of the world’s energy, but with a population of 80 million, it has the most educated nation in the region, which this should be added to its transit capabilities and superb position in South Asia. During Modi’s visit to Tehran, the two sides signed 13 memorandums of understanding and agreements, but none of them reverberated among media circles as much as the agreement on the development of Iran’s southeastern port city of Chabahar.


The signing of the Chabahar agreement drew a lot of criticism from those who said, “India cannot succeed in the implementation of this project,” “India’s background with regard to investment in foreign projects is not positive,” “the main goal of the Chabahar project is political and to counter other regional actors,” “Chabahar agreement is aimed at marginalizing other similar projects,” “Tehran prefers relations with India over relations with other regional countries,” and so forth.

To have a better grasp of the quality of this joint project, which is planned to be implemented by Iran and India in Chabahar, the following points should be taken into consideration:

1. A large part of the aforesaid analyses and criticism put the highest emphasis on the discourse-based aspect of the Chabahar agreement, that is, they wanted to read the minds of involved actors. However, it must be noted that such discourse-based analyses are not able to expound executive and operational issues as well as developmental projects. The project of Chabahar will have an objective result in the form of increasing entry and transfer of goods and cargo as well as traffic of ships to this port, whose outcome would be facilitation of regional trade. Facilitation of trade for India has coincided with projects that aim to develop eastern parts of Iran’s geographical expanse, create jobs for Iranian youths and boost the country’s customs and transit revenues. In other words, if for India, the Chabahar project means to find new markets for Indian goods, for Tehran, it means to reduce security costs, which have been so far inflicted on Iran’s eastern regions. Therefore, a discourse-based analysis or one which only focuses on the viewpoints of Iran, India, Pakistan and China for the analysis of the Chabahar project would take the analyst away from the facts.

2. In the present world, economy blazes the trail for politics and this is a comprehensive and overarching reality. With regard to the Chabahar project, if one claimed that political goals pursued by India or Iran have caused the project of Chabahar to be finalized as an economic project, this would amount to reversing the meaning of “guiding politics by economy” equation, which will cause the meaning of that equation to be understood wrongly. The wrong side of this equation will come into more light when we consider that the main approach adopted by the administration of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, and the administration of President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, is mostly directed toward economy and welfare. Attention to the two administrations’ economic goals and the effort made to create more security along Iran’s eastern borders will make the mistake of considering the Chabahar project a merely “political one” more evident.

3. Some people maintain that India has not been successful in implementing foreign projects and does not have serious resolve to make the Chabahar project operational. They add that India is mostly trying to create balance against Pakistan and China due to what is going on in Pakistan’s Gwadar port, and is also trying to boost its influence in the face of regional rivals. In fact, it must be noted that although this project is situated outside the Indian borders, India looks upon it as a domestic project. In other words, the success of the Chabahar projects is a prelude to implementation of Modi’s “make in India” plan, because access to mineral resources in Afghanistan is imperative if the production process in Indian plants is going to be continued. On the other hand, the success of the Chabahar project, is the success of Modi’s “make in India” project because it helps new Delhi send commodities made in India to more foreign markets, including those in the Central Asian countries.

4. Iran has not given exclusive rights of this project to India, but it has invited other regional and even transregional countries to invest in this project. The fact that this project is open to other countries was declared by Iran’s president during Modi’s visit to Tehran and has been also frequently announced by other Iranian officials.

5. Unfortunately, some media circles have claimed that the Chabahar agreement is a measure against Pakistan. Existence of differences between India and Pakistan is a reality, but Tehran has always declared its readiness to help solve their differences and has also pursued to meet its own interests through cooperation with these two South Asian states without interfering in bilateral disagreements between New Delhi and Islamabad. Iran has built the pipeline, which is supposed to transfer its gas to Pakistan up to about 60 km from its border with Pakistan. Just in the same way that this pipeline is nothing against India, the project in Chabahar cannot be considered to be anything against the regional interests of Pakistan. On the other hand, it must be noted that despite all these negative views, Iran cannot allow its national interests to become a victim of considerations or rivalries of other regional actors and cannot easily ignore its superb geopolitical position in the region too.

This article was written by Mehrdad Pahlevani  for Iran Review on June 25,2016. Mehrdad Pahlevani  is Asia Analyst.

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