Why is the port of Chabahar important to India

Iran and Pakistan in competition for deep-water ports

By Iranian standards, Tschahbahar is a provincial nest, far from Tehran in the province of Sistan-Balochistan. Fishing boats bob at the piers, the Gulf of Oman glistens in the hot sun in front of the small promenade. Around 200,000 people live in the unadorned coastal city, just a stone's throw away from the border with Pakistan. Iran's political celebrities rarely get lost in this southeastern corner of the country. This weekend, however, it was different. After years of construction, a new deep-water port was opened at the gates of the small town. President Hassan Rouhani personally came to inaugurate the port, and with him representatives from 17 other countries. Because they all have great hopes for the new port.

Iranian-Afghan-Indian cooperation

The three presidents Narendra Modi, Hassan Rohani and Ashraf Ghani after the signing of an agreement on the port of Tschahbahar in 2016

The port of Tschahbahar is strategically located and is therefore of immense importance for Iran, but also for the entire region, both economically and geopolitically. Due to the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, it is difficult for India to find a safe transit route to Iran and Afghanistan, but also to the Gulf region and Central Asia. Like a locking bar, Pakistan lies between India and the countries of Central Asia and the Middle East. For political and economic reasons, Pakistan is making it difficult for arch-rival India to trade with these countries overland.

The port of Tschahbahar, which is approx. 900 km from India and is the only Iranian port with direct access to the Indian Ocean, is therefore an important alternative for India. It not only simplifies trade between India and Iran, but is also intended to serve as a new transit route for India, on which goods can be sent to Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries. "India also wants to increase its political influence in Afghanistan and the countries of Central Asia through improved trade," explains Abdol Sattar Dushouki from the London "Center for Balouchistan Studies". India alone is investing around 500 million US dollars to further expand the capacity of the port that has just opened. This is intended to increase the handling capacity from currently around eight million tons to over 80 million tons.

Competitive port in the immediate vicinity

There has long been a deep-water port in the region - on the other side of the Iranian-Pakistani border. Only around 170 kilometers from Tschahbahar, Pakistan has pounded the port of Gwadar out of the coastal soil with immense Chinese financial aid. Strategically, the port serves on the one hand as the end point of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), with the help of which China wants to boost the import and export of goods in the western part of the gigantic empire. On the other hand, in the event of a threat, there is also the option of using the port as a Chinese military base, which makes it attractive due to its favorable location to rival India. India sees its position threatened by the port near Gwadar as well as by China's close cooperation with Pakistan. "The full functioning of these two ports could increase competition and tensions among shipping companies in the region," fears Abdol Dushouki.

Because the Iranian-Indian cooperation is also of great concern to many Pakistani military officials. Even if Iran asserts that the cooperation is directed neither against Pakistan nor against China, it causes displeasure among many Pakistanis. Because Pakistan will also feel the effects of this cooperation economically. Pakistani goods will be increasingly exposed to Indian competition in the Afghan and Central Asian markets, which could lead to significant trade losses.

Despite Washington’s critical stance towards Iran, the US does not seem to have any major objections to India’s involvement in the country. In October, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave the Indians the go-ahead for their investment in Tschahbahar. This may be because it is in America's interest that India, as a democratic nation, expand its influence in the region to include countries like Afghanistan. In particular, the Chinese influence in the region could be pushed back.

Iranian interest in the port

Iran expert Abdol Sattar Dushouki

The expansion of the port is also of great political interest for Iran itself. In addition to an expected economic upturn, Tehran hopes for greater independence from the ports of the Arab Emirates in the future. Tschahbahar is Iran's first own deep water port. In addition, it is the only major port outside the Strait of Hormuz and would therefore be much more difficult to seal off by a possible sea blockade.

Tschahbahar is located in Balochistan, the poorest province in Iran. The majority of the region is inhabited by the ethnic minority of the Baluch, who as Sunnis also represent a religious minority in the country. Not least because of this, the region is considered a source of fire in Iran. There are frequent skirmishes between government units and members of separatist or extremist groups. The port serves as a hope project to enhance the province. Tehran hopes that the region will also be stabilized through economic growth and investments in infrastructures.