Diplomacy · Foreign Policy · US Politics

As Trump Confronts Iran, Chabahar is in the Eye of the Storm

This appeared on the Atlantic Council’s website.

On the roller coaster of ties between the United States and Iran, President Trump’s apparent extreme hawkishness towards Tehran is one more loop in which the world has turned upside down.

This time, though, it’s not just US-Iran ties that are susceptible to damage. While Trump’s dealings with China and Russia may be more significant in determining how India leverages itself as an Asian powerhouse, how Trump deals with the Iran conundrum is a reality Delhi also needs to address.

It was only after the landmark nuclear deal between the P5 +1 and Iran in 2015 under the Obama administration that India finally inched forward on the much-awaited Chabahar port project, 13 years after it was first agreed upon.

About 2000 kilometers south of the Iranian capital, the Chabahar special economic zone would improve Indian access to Afghan, Central Asian and even European markets. It is meant to be India’s answer to Pakistan’s Gawadar port, 130 kilometers east of Chabahar, built with Chinese help.  India regards Gwadar’s development as another example of Chinese expansionism in South Asia.

India committed $500 million towards the Chabahar project in in May 2016 amid much pomp and ceremony when Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to Tehran on a state visit. The deal includes a trilateral agreement for the construction of key road and rail links from Chabahar to Afghanistan.

But actions speak louder than words and Tehran is unhappy over the delay in work on three jetties allotted to India in Chabahar port. Nearly ten months after Modi’s visit, with an eye on Delhi’s warm responses to the election of Donald Trump, a concerned Tehran is asking – what now?

Trump has repeatedly indicated that he plans to scrap the “worst deal ever negotiated” and has imposed sanctions against more Iranian entities after recent ballistic missile tests. As he barrels full steam ahead on other campaign promises including his now revised immigration ban on people from six majority Muslim nations, including Iran, could he be too far behind from renegotiating the Iran nuclear agreement?

As Iran emerges from the shadow of its international pariah status, its strategic heft and oil power – irrespective of sanctions – have long been major considerations for India and others in the region. Soon after Modi’s visit to Tehran, Iranian diplomats ruled out exclusivity in Chabahar for India, Iran and Afghanistan. Delhi’s dragging its feet has already encouraged Iranian voices that call Chabahar a sister port to Gawadar to suggest there is always room to involve Pakistan and China in further phases of the port’s development, and to also use both Chabahar and Gawadar together. In fact, the Chinese see Chabahar as a natural fit, complementing its ambitious plans to revive the old Silk Route via the One Belt One Road project that aims to create a web of interlinked trade and transit networks to connect markets and economies around South Asia.

Modi and his delegation had referred to Chabahar as an engine of growth for Iran and India.  But, with a newly belligerent US administration, could staying on the right side of Trump mean a pause in India’s engagement with Iran?

New Delhi has clearly found itself in a spot. Iran has a long memory and Delhi’s vote against it at the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2006, referring Iran to the UN Security Council for its nuclear program, may be history in India, but hasn’t been forgotten in Tehran. Many Iranian commentators point out that Modi’s visit to Iran in 2016 took place well after many other major players. In fact, Chinese leader Xi Jinping was the first major leader to visit Tehran once the nuclear deal was signed. The message between the lines is that India under Modi won’t make a move to upset Washington, even if other world leaders criticize or question Trump’s policies or style.

In a post-Trump election world, despite the killing of at least 2 Indians in apparently hate crime incidents, India’s prime minister, perhaps waiting for Pakistan to be added to the list of countries facing the US immigration ban, is one of the few global leaders who has steered clear of commentary on Trump’s executive orders that many argue have emboldened racism and Islamophobia in the United States.  It’s clear that the US-Iran relationship is volatile. It’s also clear that growing tensions between Iran and the US will cause concern in Delhi. But here’s the rub. The European Union and the rest of the P5+1 that negotiated the nuclear agreement have spoken out against renegotiating the deal, while calling for stricter policing of Iran. China, which was hit by the recent missile sanctions, has gone so far as to warn Trump against moves that destroy what little trust has been built up with Iran.  In December 2016, China’s Foreign minister, sharing a podium with his Iranian counterpart had said the deal “should not be affected by any changes” in domestic policy.

While India certainly needn’t be adversarial on the issue, Delhi, for the sake of its own strategic and economic interests, needs to be confident of its commitment to Chabahar’s development and let America know that its bilateral relationship with Washington cannot be intertwined with its dealings with Tehran.

Maya Mirchandani is a senior journalist with NDTV based in New Delhi and is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. You can follow her on Twitter @maya206.

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