Indian Ports, Shipping and Waterways Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s three-day visit to Iran is significant in the development of relations between the two countries, especially as the United States pursues its sanctions against Iran. This underscores that Iran continues to have strategic importance in West Asia and negates criticism that Iran’s importance was reduced with the formation of I2U2, formerly known as the West Asia Quad.
He visited Shahid Beheshti Port in Chabahar, Iran on August 20 to review the development progress of port-related issues. He also handed over six mobile harbor cranes to Indian Ports Global Chabahar Free Trade Zone at the port. He discussed with Deputy Minister and Director General of Ports and Maritimes Organization, Iran, Dr. Ali Akbar Safaee, opportunities for trade and unlocking trade potential between Central and South Asian countries. South, ASEAN and even countries in the Far East like Japan and Korea. Importantly, it was also decided to form a joint technical committee for the proper functioning of the port. The meeting also drew up a plan for the future line of action for the development of the port. A Memorandum of Understanding on Recognition of Certificates of Competence for Unlimited Voyages to assist seafarers of both countries in accordance with the provisions of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (1978) was also signed.
The MEA in a statement said: “The Union Minister reiterated the importance of bilateral relations between the two countries. Chabahar’s role as a trade multiplier for the region was underscored by the Union Minister during the meeting, as the port’s potential to act as a fast and economical trade channel between Central Asia and the South Asia, or even Southeast Asia, remains to be fully exploited. The statement also said that since India Ports Global Private Limited (IPGPL) took over the operations of Shahid Beheshti Port, it has handled over 4.8 million tonnes of bulk cargo and the port is likely to act as a catalyst to unleash the enormous trade potential in the region.
The visiting minister also paid a visit to Iranian Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, who is Iran’s special envoy for relations with India. This not only reflects Iran’s interest in developing close ties with India, but also the importance given to India in its foreign policy.
Both India and Iran are willing to enter into a long-term agreement for the effective utilization of Chabahar Port in the North-South International Corridor. Sonowal said, “The strategic role of Chabahar Port in unlocking trade potential in regional trade between Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia is huge. We are continuously working to make the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) the preferred trade route between the two regions. The INSTC is a 7,200 km corridor, designed to optimize trade between India, Russia and the Eurasian and Central Asian economies, and it is said to have the potential for an eightfold increase. Importantly, plans are also being discussed to link INSTC to the Northern Sea Route. This would facilitate linking the resource-rich Russian Arctic. India has long been interested in this region.
The current short-term agreement for the use of Shaheed Beheshti port is not attracting enough investment, although it is regularly extended. Current geopolitical developments demand leveraging Iran’s Chabahar port for international trade. Without a long-term stakeholder agreement and assurance, investment would remain a major hurdle. All nations interested in economic development are looking for alternative supply chains, which can be established when traders and industrial manufacturers are assured of the longevity of the project. It is heartening to note that India and Iran are taking steps in this direction.
India is also involving other nations for the use of Chabahar port. Recently, India and Uzbekistan signed an agreement to carry out a pilot container cargo shipment with the broader aim of exploring regular trade opportunities between the two countries. Talks are also underway to conclude a trilateral agreement with Iran and Oman for the use of Chabahar port.
These measures also reflect the fact that India pursues an independent policy geared towards economic development. While US sanctions are hampering the growth of normal trade in the region, Pakistan is creating barriers within our reach and to our trade with Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries. The NSA’s recent visit to Russia was aimed at having a coordinated approach to Central Asia and Afghanistan. This is of vital interest given China’s growing penetration into Central Asia.
Given the current environment which sees heightened rivalries between the United States and China on the one hand and the United States and Russia on the other, coupled with the hostility of Pakistan which seems to be a permanent feature , India must look for alternatives to secure its economic interests. Iran occupies an important place in connecting India with Central Asia, Western Asia and also Europe.
India has close historical and cultural ties with Iran. The two countries shared a border until 1947. India established diplomatic relations with Iran in 1950 and since then there have been regular exchanges of high-level visits. In 2001, during the visit of late Prime Minister Sri Atal Behari Vajpayee, the two countries signed the “Tehran Declaration” which defined possible areas of cooperation between the two countries. Later in 2003, President Mohammad Khatami visited India and the two countries signed the “New Delhi Declaration” which sets out the vision for a strategic partnership between India and Iran. During Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi’s visit to Tehran in May 2016, the contract on Chabahar was signed. A joint statement titled “Civilizational Connect, Contemporary context” was released. The two countries have established several bilateral consultative mechanisms at different levels which meet regularly. To further boost Indo-Iranian relations, it is time for India to also appoint a special envoy for relations with Iran as the latter has appointed its vice president as special envoy for relations with India.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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