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India Left Out of Chabahar: Iran’s Ties With China Should Worry Us

China’s move to cement a long-term partnership with Iran shows a disdain for Trump’s Iran policy. 

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Image of Iran & China flags used for representation.
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Reports indicate that Iran has decided to go ahead by itself to construct the Chabahar-Zahedan railway project instead of doing it jointly with India. In 2016, the two countries had decided to build the railway line as part of the development of the Chabahar port and associated connectivity.

Pakistan has traditionally obstructed India’s overland route to Afghanistan and beyond. The Chabahar port itself, and the access through it to Afghanistan and via Afghanistan to Central Asia, are therefore of strategic value for India. From this perspective the Iranian move represents a set-back to Indian interests.

Iran-China Working On Long-Term Economic & Military Partnership

Apparently, Iran has attributed putting India’s participation aside on account of delays in Indian funding and other aspects of project implementation. Iran now claims that it will provide the USD 400 million project cost through its own resources. However, its financial position is precarious because of the growing stranglehold of American sanctions. These are causing enormous damage to the Iranian economy. Hence, it is difficult to envisage how Iran will be able to raise resources for this railway project on its own.

It is here that reports that Iran and China are working on a long-term economic and military partnership gain credible and enormous significance. 

Sometimes, strategic tips reveal strategic icebergs.

Under the envisaged arrangement, China will spend USD 400 billion over the next twenty years in Iran. Should this happen, it will not only transform Iran-China bilateral ties, but it will change the entire geo-politics and strategic landscape of the West Asian region.

It will also represent one of China’s boldest moves in the context of its growing rivalry with the United States.
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Snapshot
  • Apparently, Iran has attributed putting India’s participation aside on account of delays in Indian funding and other aspects of project implementation.
  • Iran now claims that it will provide the USD 400 million project cost through its own resources, a story that’s not easy to buy given American sanctions on it.
  • It is here that reports that Iran and China are working on a long-term economic and military partnership gain credible and enormous significance.
  • This kind of move towards China goes against the Iranian clerical regime’s tradition of seeking balance and keeping its strategic options open.
  • For India, China’s growing ties with Iran will be one more manifestation of its aggressive policy in its immediate and extended neighbourhood.
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Effects Of Trump’s Reversal Of Obama’s Approach to Iran

In reversing President Barack Obama’s carefully constructed approach to Iran, President Donald Trump has driven it into a corner. Trump abandoned the US-Iran nuclear deal in 2018. The premise of the deal was that Iran would essentially give up uranium enrichment. In return, UN and US sanctions would be initially diluted, and finally lifted. After the deal was signed in 2015, sanctions began to be lifted.

Consequently, the Iranian economy and financial situation improved. With this, Iran quickly made strong moves in the region – stretching from Yemen to Syria to Iraq – through consolidating Shia-dominated governments, groups and forces.

This represented a challenge to Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as Israel. These countries had done all they could to prevent the US-Iran nuclear deal, but had failed to convince Obama from moving ahead.

Trump, as presidential candidate, was a critic of the deal. He favoured a reliance on America’s traditional West Asia policy with its three elements: support of Israel, strong relations with the Sunni Arab states, and working towards a regime change in Iran.

As President, Trump went ahead to revive the old US approach towards West Asia. 

He targeted the deal as against US interests. Despite the opposition of America’s European allies, Russia and China, he abandoned it.

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Why Iran Chose To Move Towards China Despite Clerical Regime’s Tradition Of ‘Balance’

Trump’s actions against Iran’s economy and the regime has made Iran go into the arms of China. The killing of Qassem Soleimani, the iconic leader of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in January 2020, can be seen as critical in this process.

This kind of move towards China goes against the Iranian clerical regime’s tradition of seeking balance and keeping its strategic options open.

It has obviously calculated that if Trump wins the upcoming presidential election, he will come at it with renewed vigour. Also, that even if he does not, his successor may not find it easy to reverse all of Trump’s steps vis-à-vis Iran.

In fostering such a close relationship with Iran, China would not be oblivious to the danger of harming its ties with the Sunni Arab states and Israel.

It has clearly calculated that the Sunni states would need it as a major consumer of their oil and gas resources.

That is the fulcrum on which the relationship rests, and that cannot fully tilt against it. It would have also calculated that it can absorb any criticism of its treatment of Uighur Muslims sponsored by these states in the Islamic world. Inevitably, a coincidence of interests will grow between the Shia world and China, while those of Sunni Arab states and China will begin to diverge.

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What Will Be the Fate of Chabahar Now?

China’s move to cement a long-term partnership with Iran shows a disdain for Trump’s Iran policy. It is a powerful signal to the US President and to the international community. Perhaps more so than its steps in Hong Kong, against Taiwan, in the South China sea, and the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. This is because Iran is clearly Trump’s pet hate.

For India, China’s growing ties with Iran will be one more manifestation of its aggressive policy in its immediate and extended neighbourhood.

Pakistan is in China’s pocket, and it should be taken for granted that the Gwadar port will have a defence dimension. What will be the fate of Chabahar now?

All this represents a great challenge to Indian interests, especially at a time when the country is confronting COVID-19, acute economic difficulties, political discord and a weakening of the social fabric. Will India’s political and strategic classes show the unity and the will to confront this challenge? If they do not, the country will pay a dire price for decades to come.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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