|Capt.(IN) (Retd.) GS Inda
New Delhi: Historically India-Iran relationship go back to pre-independence era, when both countries shared common border along with Afghanistan. It is well known fact that India’s extended neighbourhood stretches to the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf to the West, and even to the Eastern coasts of Africa as Western border of strategic space, and Strait of Malacca to the East, Antarctica to the South and Central Asia to the North. Iran is strategically located at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, which is an important gateway for energy supply to the world and in particular to India. Iran is third largest exporter of oil to India and meets India’s 7.5% of domestic oil demand. Despite UN, EU and US sanctions imposed on Iran, India has been able to import oil against payment in Rupee term. In the present economic down turn, when the value of Rupee against Dollar is falling rapidly and oil prices are rising in the international market, India should consider increasing its oil import from Iran by making additional shipping arrangements.
Chabahar Port and its importance to India
Iran due to its location at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, plays a pivotal role in keeping watchful surveillance over movement of world shipping and oil trade. India is assisting Iran in extending necessary infrastructure and port facility at Chabahar port and announced $ 100 million aid for the project. Work is also in progress to build rail link to connect up road highway at Iran-Afghanistan border to sustain nation building and commercial interest in Afghanistan. There is no doubt that Iran is a major power in the region and other countries like Saudi Arabia and Gulf nations are of no match to Iran in advancement of science, technology and military might. At the same time, India is a growing economy with emerging regional power in the sub-continent and needs allies to offset growing Chinese influence in Gawadar and Gulf region.
Iran, a Shia Muslim country and has supporters in various Muslim countries. India has a large population of Shia Muslims and therefore, need to be supported. India’s “Look East Policy” of 1990’s, gave importance to developing sustainable friendly and commercial ties with ASEAN countries in fostering strong relationship. Now, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh has focused on “Look West Policy” to strengthen India’s relationship with Gulf and CAR nations. Apart from Iran, a strong and growing strategic partnership with Israel, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will enable India playing a lead role in maintaining peace and stability in the region. The growing relationship with these nations will increase trade and meet India’s growing energy demand. The growing support announced to Iran during BRICS meeting held in New Delhi in end Mar 2012 and last 16th NAM summit at Tehran in Aug 2012, are the right steps in strengthening strong ties with Iran. After the withdrawal of ISAF from Afghanistan by 2014, India and Afghanistan will need logistics facilities at Chabahar port to support nation building and economic interest.
Gwadar Port and its importance to Pakistan
After the 1971 missile attacks on Karachi harbour, Pakistan has been actively planning to relocate its maritime assets including naval ships to the west away from the reach of the Indian Navy. Accordingly, ports at Ormara, Pasni and Gwadar were developed. These ports have been connected by a 653 km Makran Coastal Highway passing through Baluchistan province in 2004. Gwadar, initially a small fishing village, 70 km east of Iranian coast is now a warm water deep sea port jointly developed by Pakistan and China at a cost of US $ 248 million, was inaugurated on 20 Mar 2007. This year China has taken over the final operation of Gwadar port and will further develop the port commercially with initial investment of $ 750 million. The port is considered strategically important to China, who imports 60% of its oil requirement from the Gulf by ships carrying oil through Malacca strait, will be able to reduce distance and time by laying direct pipeline from Gwadar Port to Xinjiang province of China. Iran is also setting up a $4 billion refinery at Gwadar with 400,000 barrels per day refining capacity. China has plan to invest $ 12 bn for setting up a coastal refinery at Gwadar and other parts of Pakistan with processing capacity of 60,000 barrels of crude oil per day.
Chabahar Port and Gwadar Port; locations and strategic importance
Iran dominates Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman and Strait of Hormuz from geostrategic perspective. It is significant to note that 40% of world oil flows through these straits. In addition, Iran acts as land bridge between Middle East and Central Asian Republics (CAR) as also between South Asia and Europe through Turkey. Opening to CAR is through the Caspian Sea. Iran is separated from Saudi Arabia by the Persian Gulf. It has the largest Shia community in the world, which can be used as bulwark against Sunni world. Iran shares its northern borders with three erstwhile Soviet nations i.e. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. These borders extend for more than 2,000 km, including 650 km of water along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. Iran's western borders are with Turkey in the North and Iraq in the South, terminating at the Shatt al-Arab, which Iranians call the Arvand Rud. To the East lie Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran's diagonal distance from Azerbaijan in the North-West to Sistan and Baluchistan Province in the South-East is 2,333 km (approx.).
Iran extends over an area of 1,648,000 sq. km, making it the second largest country in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia. The southern coastline of Iran, including the Persian Gulf and Oman Sea is 1,770 km (approx.). Therefore, augmenting port and transportation linkage from Chabahar port via rail/ road to the Iran’s neighbourhood is very important. Gwadar port located 170 km East of Chabahar port on the Makran coast of Pakistan, is becoming important for the reason that China has taken over the administration and operational management of this port and planning to construct road through Karakoram Highway linking Xinziang province and lay gas pipeline to meets energy demand and save shipping time, resources and maritime risk of transporting oil from Persian Gulf through Indian Ocean, Malacca Strait and South China Sea. China is already negotiating with Iran to get extension of Iran-Pakistan Gas pipeline to China. Therefore, to offset Chinese influence at Gwadar port, it is imperative that India speed up its support to Iran in upgrading Chabahar port and nominate a consortium to administer and manage the port for a period, to be agreed mutually by both the Govt.
India’s future strategy
Keeping long term strategy and energy security in focus, India has been engaged with Afghanistan and Iran through various infrastructure works right from laying power line, rail network, highways, hospital, schools, dams, Parliament building, Port etc. But pace for these work have been too slow and need to be speeded up, so that after the 2014 withdrawal of ISAF from Afghanistan, Chabahar port is able to meet the logistics of Afghanistan and India’s commercial and strategic interests.