The Iran-India-Afghanistan Riddle
At the sidelines of the 16th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Tehran, Iran, the governments of Afghanistan, India and Iran will hold a small conclave. Commercial issues are at the top of the agenda. Not far down the list, however, are significant political matters. These are of great interest as the Israelis and the United States power up their aircraft for a bombing raid on Iran’s Fordo nuclear bunker, and as the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) begin their obligatory withdrawal from more than a decade-long occupation in Afghanistan.
Geography is one of the greatest reasons for the trade between these countries. In May, Afghanistan's Commerce and Industries Minister Anwar al-Haq Ahady and Iran's Ambassador to Afghanistan Abolfazl Zohrevand signed an agreement to deepen the trade ties between these countries. The main issue before them was use of the Chabahar port in southeastern Iran. About 50 hectares of land beside the port have been set aside for the construction of a hub for Afghan traders.
Few people paid any attention to this pact, although it has much broader implications than for these Afghan traders. For the past 10 years, the Indian government has been working with the Iranians to upgrade the Chabahar port, with the expectation that eventually Indian ships will dock there and unload cargo destined not only for the Iranian market, but crucially for the Afghan and Central Asian markets.
The Chabahar port would make the land route across Pakistan unnecessary for Indian trade bound for the lucrative Central Asian market. In 2003, Afghanistan, India and Iran signed their first agreement regarding this project. Iran was to build a road from Chabahar to the Afghan border, and India was then to build a road from there to Zarang/Delaram, which is on the Kandahar-Herat highway. In other words, Chabahar would be linked to Kabul and to points north. The roads are now ready, and Chabahar is prepared to be the main transit point for Indian goods.
Chabahar comes from the words char (four) and bahar (Spring), suggesting that the port has four seasons of springtime. It is a major warm water port and will allow goods to travel into Central Asia throughout the year.
In 1992, the Iranian government designated Chabahar as a special economic zone to allow potential investment, mainly from Southeast Asia. Ten years ago, the Indians expressed interest and they are now the leading players here. The Iranian government is eager to sign an addition memorandum with the Indian government that would attract substantial investment into the port.
Apart from the major highway to link Chabahar and the Kandahar-Herat highway, two rail projects are also in the works. The first, run by the Indians, plans to link Chabahar by rail to the mineral rich area of Hajigak (its mineral assets are estimated at US$1-$3 trillion). The second, run by the Iranians, produces a freight line from Herat to Iran's northeastern city of Mashhad (and then onward to Turkey). This rail project will not be complete for another decade.
Half of Afghanistan's oil comes from Iran. To bring it from elsewhere makes no sense. Iran is a major oil producer and it shares a 936 kilometer border with Afghanistan. Despite the US occupation of that country, it has been impossible to reduce Afghanistan's dependence on Iranian oil. Afghanistan is a landlocked state, and relies upon its neighbors for its trade.
NATO has already had its supply lines through Pakistan closed by Islamabad, and it has faced problems in Central Asia as the governments there have cleverly bargained up the prices for base rentals and use of their land routes. It has been impossible to insist that the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul join the blockade against Iran - the adverse effects on an already crisis-prone Afghanistan, and therefore on the fragile occupation, would only intensify.
The US has put considerable pressure on India to cut back on its oil purchases. India now imports between 10% and 15% of its oil needs from Iran, a figure much reduced from five years previously. For the past two decades, India has cultivated close ties with the US. It was willing to pay a stiff price (voting against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005 and 2009) to come out of the nuclear cold (through the 2008 US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement).
Nonetheless, India remains a major trading partner with its near neighbor, even crafting an interesting payment vehicle to help circumvent the harsh European and US sanctions regime against Iran (Iran will accept 45% of its oil payments in Indian rupees, which will help bolster Indian exports into Iran). The opportunity of Chabahar has now put India in a mini-bind: should it invest more in this major project and gain access to Central Asian trade or should it make Washington happy and snub Iran?
Afghanistan remains under US occupation. India seeks a close equation with the US. Iran and the US are hostile powers. Yet, these three countries, with very different relations with the US, now find that geography is their destiny. A pragmatic foreign policy built on the urgency of economic development draws these states together. Afghanistan needs access to a port and oil, as well as manufactured goods. Iran needs to sell its oil. India wants to find markets for its manufactured goods, and to find a ready supply of oil. Such linkages are hard to ignore.
These maneuvers disturb the US and Pakistan, two unlikely allies. The US is unhappy that the regional powers do not wish to join its economic and political embargo of Iran (that the 16th NAM is happening in Tehran, with two thirds of the world's states in attendance, is a great disappointment to Washington).
But there is recognition in Washington that little can be done to block this trilateral linkage. The US cannot possibly provide the Karzai government with the entirety of its needs via air delivery. It has not been able to break India's reliance on Iran, even though the Saudis have been asked and have promised to open more of their spigots to make up for any loss to the Indians.
Pakistan, sadly, is also threatened by this new arrangement. It had built the Gwadar port with Chinese help as a counterpoint to Chabahar. However, relations between Islamabad and Kabul have soured, with the Karzai government worried that the Pakistanis are once more going to back the Taliban as a wedge to maintain their forward policy into Afghanistan.
It is worth recalling that when Pakistan was founded in 1947, Afghanistan did not recognize it. They have a long-standing border dispute on the 1893 Durand Line ("a line of hatred that raised a wall between the two brothers," as Hamid Karzai called it). The Afghan government's antipathy to Pakistani aims through the Taliban have drawn it closer to India and Iran, both of whom have a long-standing hostile relationship with the Taliban.
Pakistan has for a long time felt India has tried to encircle it through its friendship with Afghanistan. This simmering enmity has meant that no rational foreign policy has been possible in the region. A long-standing natural gas pipeline that was planned to run from Iran to India via Pakistan has died a slow death because of this distrust.
Contradictory US aims in the region have befuddled the geopolitics. It wants to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, but it cannot do so without engagement from Iran and India, as well as Pakistan. It wants to isolate Iran, but it cannot do so fully for fear of an economic implosion in Afghanistan.
Absent the US power projections in the region, policies could be implemented to reduce tension and increase the mutual reliance amongst the populations of the region. Afghanistan, India and Iran could begin to work on Pakistan to build trust and goodwill through small trade projects that would grow to larger interrelationships. The trilateral meeting at the side of the 16th NAM is a small step toward a more robust union in southern Asia. It is a rebuff to the politics of war.
Vijay Prashad's most recent book is Arab Spring, Libyan Winter(AK Press, 2012). The Turkish edition, Arap Bihari, Libya Kisi (Yordam Kitap) is just out. He teaches International Studies at Trinity College (Hartford, CT).