The Iranian port of Chabahar will help Tehran rebalance its relations with India and Pakistan and has the potential to transform the waters north of the Indian Ocean into an Iranian maritime “sphere of influence”
Iran generally makes headlines for its activities in the Persian Gulf and the Levant, from Iraq to Lebanon via Syria. Most of the time, the region’s leaders and observers refer to the “axis of resistance” or, more in political terms, the “Shiite crescent”, to show Tehran’s vast influence in the Middle East.
However, the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea and, more broadly, South Asia, is the scene of another decisive, albeit little-reported rivalry involving the Islamic Republic.
The Iranian port of Chabahar, an Indian-funded project in Sistan and Baluchistan province, is expected to start operating next year, opening a new transit route for Afghanistan and Afghanistan products. of Central Asia.
It will also be a major challenge for Gwadar, the Pakistani port funded by China less than 100 kilometers away and, in a region where the power balance is already volatile, will give Tehran an influence on South Asian actors.
Despite serious political differences with Iran over several long-running conflicts, from Israel / Palestine to Kashmir, India has been working for a long time on the Chabahar port project.
During his first official visit to Tehran in May 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a three-way transit agreement involving Iran and Afghanistan to transform Chabahar into a transit center and promised 500 million to develop it.
The agreement will allow these three countries to bypass their Pakistani rival and gain practical and reliable access to the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean.
This is particularly important for Afghanistan, which has no access to the sea and is at the mercy of Islamabad’s efforts to maintain a dominant position in this war-torn country by serving groups of militias share his ideas.
Less than 100 kilometers by sea from the port of Gwadar, Chabahar will also offer India an alternative route to markets in Central Asia, Russia and Europe, compromising what Delhi perceives as attempts at ” encircling “ Of China and Pakistan.
“The agreement can change the course of history in this region,” said Modi during his visit, which he described as “a new chapter in our strategic partnership”.
Iran’s rebalancing leverage
What makes the port of Chabahar important to Iran strategically is its potential to help Tehran balance its relations with the two nuclear rivals of South Asia, India and Pakistan.
In the past, the Islamic Republic has taken advantage of its Shiite religious ideology to exert pressure on its eastern neighbors and to project its influence and power on South Asian Muslims, especially Shiite communities in Pakistan and India.
In a speech marking the Feast of Eid al-Fitr in June, the Iranian Supreme Leader highlighted the “many wounds” that have been inflicted on the body of the Islamic “Umma”, including the ordeal endured by Muslims of Kashmir.
“The Muslim world should support the peoples of Yemen and denounce the oppressors who […] commit abuses against them, as well as those of Bahrain and Kashmir,” said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Surprisingly, the main Iranian decision-maker on state affairs – which has generally treated the Kashmir conflict with restraint to avoid irritating India and emboldening Pakistan – raised the issue again in another speech delivered barely a week later, demanding that the judiciary use legal channels and publicly declare its position on “support for Muslims […] of Kashmir”.
As expected, Khamenei’s words were greeted warmly by Islamabad and denounced by News Delhi. I then advanced the idea that Tehran publicly invoked the Kashmir conflict to express its discontent with the historic visit of Modi to Tel Aviv and the growing links between India and Israel, the sworn enemy of the Islamic Republic.
Now, with Chabahar, Iran is about to acquire a ” hard power ” tool that will enable it to influence India and Pakistan and to force them to align their regional policies with their own interests.
The war in Afghanistan
The port of Chabahar and the practical access to Afghanistan enclaved by the $ 1.6 billion Zahedan railway project also promise to reinforce Iran’s weight in the theater Afghan.
This is of utmost importance at a time when various regional actors, from India to Russia, are trying to influence the dynamics of war in this South Asian country.
In this regard, Iran has set itself two major goals over the past decade: to undermine the viability of the US military presence in Afghanistan and to contain a growing Pakistani influence on the other.
The first objective was achieved mainly in concert with Russia by developing closer military and intelligence ties with the Taliban so that they could act as Tehran and Moscow henchmen against the mission of the states -United States in the Afghan War.
The second objective is pursued by helping India, Pakistan’s main rival, to find a foothold in this war-torn country. To this end, the port of Chabahar in the Gulf of Oman and its planned rail connection with Zahedan – the center of Iranian Sistan-Baluchistan province and close to both Afghanistan and Pakistan – decisive. Indeed, these are likely to strengthen military cooperation between Tehran and Delhi to the detriment of Islamabad.
Strategic depth in the Persian Gulf
Finally, the port of Chabahar will give Iran more room for maneuver in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, where strained encounters take place from time to time between the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRG) and foreign forces.
Increasing Iran’s naval presence in the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea can provide a vital and operational link and serve as a reliable source of logistical assistance to GRI forces operating in the Persian Gulf, strategic depth of Iran in this crucial region.
In addition to the growing territorial dependence on Iran for access to Central Asia, Chabahar has the potential to transform the waters north of the Indian Ocean into a maritime “sphere of influence” a genre that Tehran does not have elsewhere.