Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar both visited Tehran last month, on separate occasions but within the same week. Though the purpose of the meetings — according to official statements — was aimed at “strengthening bilateral cooperation” and discussing some “important regional issues,” the agenda likely included the handling of Chabahar Port in Iran.
New Delhi has been working closely with Tehran on initiatives to help make the port an economic success. Chabahar, located less than 900 miles from Mumbai, will serve as an important gateway for India into Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Unscheduled, these brief stopovers by senior Indian ministers denote a growing uneasiness in India ever since the drafting of a prospective 25-year strategic partnership between Iran and China was leaked.
During a visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Tehran in 2016, Iran, India and Afghanistan had signed a trilateral agreement named the International Transport and Transit Corridor to facilitate the transfer of Indian goods to Afghanistan via Chabahar Port.
Since the draft mentioned large-scale Chinese investments in Iranian ports, Indian involvement in various projects could get affected and having an important role in developing a terminal at Chabahar Port, New Delhi is bound to be concerned.
Even though Tehran’s deal with Beijing is not final, New Delhi would like to consolidate its interests in Iran.
Notably, Singh became the first Indian defense minister to visit Iran in two decades. After having a positive round of talks with his Iranian counterpart, Singh tweeted, “Had a very fruitful meeting with Iranian defense minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami in Tehran. We discussed regional security issues including Afghanistan and the issues of bilateral cooperation.”
Two days later, the Indian foreign minister arrived in Tehran for a short visit on his way to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Moscow.
According to reports, both the visiting Indian ministers had sought assurances from the Iranian side that New Delhi would remain involved in port handling and other projects, and the situation would remain unchanged if China and Iran do finalize the strategic partnership.
New Delhi’s concerns are not unfounded as India was dropped from the Chabahar-Zahedan rail project citing concerns over delays and funding in July. At that time, Farhad Montaser, the deputy to Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization, had even stated that Iran had no agreement on building the railway line.
According to The Hindu news daily, Iranian Railways had decided to complete the project itself, using $400 million from its own National Development Fund. Losing one more project, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs had disclosed that India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd. had been “cut out of the development of an Iranian gas field project, Farzad-B, though talks had been in process since 2009.”
However, Iranian officials had denied reports suggesting that Chabahar Port would be leased to China even though speculations were rife about a "$400 billion" strategic partnership between Beijing and Tehran at that time, and the general perception was that India had received a permanent setback.
Describing the implications for New Delhi, former Indian envoy to Iran KC Singh had said, “[The Iran-China deal] impinges on India’s ‘strategic ties’ with Iran and the use of Chabahar port. Jask lies to the west of Chabahar and right before the Strait of Hormuz. China would thus extend its control along the Pakistan-Iran coast.”
However, the recent talks have been successful. Nearly two weeks after the visits by both the ministers, New Delhi has asserted that it remains engaged with Tehran.
Replying to a query in the Lok Sabha, the Indian parliament, Minister of External Affairs V. Muraleedharan stated that India and Iran continue to cooperate on developmental projects in Iran and that even the Chabahar-Zahedan railway project worth around $1.6 billion is back on track.
In reply to another query, Muraleedharan also announced that India will be participating in the first phase of development of the Shahid Beheshti Port in Chabahar. Having taken over the port operations in December 2018, India Ports Global Ltd. have been handling the cargo.
If Tehran and New Delhi are planning to implement Chabahar and other projects under Indian supervision once again, it would be a significant move.
First, India wishes to balance Chinese influence in the region and if New Delhi manages to regain its footing in Tehran, it has some symbolic value.
Manoj Joshi, a foreign policy expert from the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, said, “Iran is also important in the sense that China has been dominating the region, and New Delhi doesn’t want to give a free run to Beijing."
Second, the timing of the Indo-Iranian reengagement is particularly interesting as the Indo-China border has remained volatile since last year and some serious frictions have taken place lately. Moreover, Iran and India also have a strategic defense pact known as the New Delhi Declaration since 2003.
Third, Chabahar in the Sistan-Baluchistan province can be New Delhi’s gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia since it is denied land routes via Pakistan by Islamabad. Situated about 900 miles from the Indian port city and commercial capital of Mumbai, Chabahar helps India gain access to an important geopolitical region.
Finally, Chabahar strengthens trade links between Tehran and New Delhi. Before Iran got sanctioned by the United States, it had strong commercial and cultural ties with India and New Delhi and imported $12.11 billion worth of crude oil in 2018-19. After suspending oil purchases, bilateral trade was left to just around $4.77 billion and Indian influence also decreased in Iran.
In the days ahead, the Indo-Iranian strategic relationship will depend a lot on the closeness between Beijing and Tehran, and if a 25-year strategic partnership finally kicks off, India’s relations with Iran can cool off once again. Likewise, the Indo-US economic and strategic relationship has also had an impact on trade ties with Tehran, as New Delhi reduced its oil imports after the imposition of sanctions.
Meanwhile, negotiations between China and Iran continue at a snail’s pace and it is possible that an agreement will be inked in the months ahead. Apparently, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is planning to visit China “in the near future” to finalize the modalities of the “Comprehensive Cooperation Plan between the People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
According to the Iranian president’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, “The documents of 25-year relations between Iran and China is very important. Iran-China relations have been expanded and deepened in various political and economic sectors. This document will make it possible for us to purposefully draw plans for the activities of various institutions of the country.”
Opposing such a deal, around 100 prominent Iranians have written a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Expressing concern, the signatories of the letter state that “the Islamic Republic intends to tether Tehran to Beijing politically and embed China into the economic and social fabric of Iran” in a way that will “severely restrain its political and economic sovereignty.”