By Vijay Prashad
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
Iranís 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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