What is Chabahar Port & Why did Iran drop India from the rail project?

A big loss to Narendra Modi’s government makes its way with Iran deciding to proceed with Chabahar port rail project on its own citing reasons of delay in funds from India. Without wasting much time the opposition took to the ruling party with Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi taking a dig at the Modi government saying, “But you can’t ask questions!”

Iranian Transport and Urban Development Minister Mohammad Eslami inaugurated the 628 km Chabahar-Zahedan line last week and said that the project will be completed March 2022, without India’s assistance, reported The Hindu.

This step is considered to be a major setback for India for whom Chabahar was a strategic response to CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor).

What is Chabahar Rail Project?

Chabahar port is located on the Gulf of Oman and is only 72 km away from the Gwadar port in Pakistan which has been developed China. The port serves as the only oceanic port of Iran and consists of two separate ports named Shahid Beheshti and Shahid Kalantari.

The Chabahar Port allows India to reach Afghanistan via a sea-land route, passing Pakistan. Via the Chabahar Port, India would have gained direct access to Afghanistan and Central Asia— Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan in terms of trade.

Why did Iran drop India from Chabahar Rail Project?

As per reports, the MoU signed between the Iranian Railways and the state-owned Indian Railways Construction Ltd (IRCON) was “part of transit and transportation corridor in trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan”. The MoU signed in May 2016 during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tehran ensured that IRCON will provide all services, superstructure work and financing for the project.

However, India never began the work due to worries that it would attract US sanctions. India had already zeroed out its oil imports from Iran due to these sanctions.

But US had provided a sanction waiver for Chabahar port…

Indeed US had waived off the sanction over Chabahar port and the rail line, but finding equipment suppliers and partners was also a point of concern as they might get targeted the US.

Is there any involvement of China behind this step?

While one cannot directly accuse China of getting project dropped from India’s hands, it is difficult to deny its presence too as Iran and China are close to finalising the ‘Comprehensive Plan for Cooperation between Iran and China’ which is a 25-year and USD 400 billion strategic partnership deal, and will include Chinese involvement in Chabahar’s duty free zone, an oil refinery near, and possibly a larger role in Chabahar port.

Earlier, Iran proposed a tie-up between the Gwadar port and Chabahar in 2019 and offered interests to China in the Bandar-e-Jask port 350 km away from Chabahar. India needs to keep a close watch at the upcoming possibilities as Iran-China deal can not only harm India’s relations with Iran but hamper its dream of becoming a superpower.

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