One of the best-known principles of international relations is that if a neighbour is persistently unfriendly and inimical, then befriend his neighbours. Prime Minister Narendra Modi observed this principle deftly when he visited Iran recently. He recognised that freed from international sanctions, Iran would be ready to play a far greater role in the emerging geopolitics of India’s western neighbourhood. The time had arrived for India to break out of the roadblocks on connectivity to West and Central Asia imposed by Pakistan, ever since its birth. The way around these hurdles has been known for years. But, for the first time, India showed the dexterity to demonstrably outmanoeuvre Pakistan by signing a deal with Iran to get access it had been denied to Afghanistan and Central Asia, through the Iranian port of Chabahar.
This marked an important milestone in building a partnership with Iran, where both countries could resume the sort of cooperation they had earlier to deal with Taliban extremism in Afghanistan. If the ISI used Taliban-controlled territory to train terrorists against India, Iran had to deal with violence and hostility that the Taliban perpetrated against Shias. While there have been continuing differences between India and Iran on the post 9/11 American role in Afghanistan, both are agreed that Afghanistan should not again become a haven for global terrorism and Wahhabi extremism. Over the past 15 years, there has been a remarkable complementarity in Indian and Iranian approaches to relations with Afghanistan.
In the years following 9/11, India has extended around $2 billion in economic assistance to Afghanistan—much of it directed at capacity building, food assistance for schoolchildren, construction of power transmission lines, and roads, including a road link to Iran, as first step to developing alternate supply lines to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Salma Dam in the Herat Province bordering Iran is a $275 million multi-purpose hydropower project, set for inauguration by Prime Minister Modi. It can generate 42 MW of hydroelectricity and irrigate 75,000 hectares of land. Reflecting its commitment to democracy in Afghanistan, India has completed construction of an impressive Parliament building in Kabul. The dam project conforms to the 1973 Accord between Iran and Afghanistan on sharing of river waters. Likewise, Iran has committed an estimated $500 million in development assistance to Afghanistan, covering roads, energy infrastructure and schools.
In these circumstances, it was only appropriate that Modi’s visit to Iran was marked by an unprecedented trilateral India-Afghanistan-Iran Summit, where he and President Rouhani were joined by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to herald the signing of a $500-million project for the development of the Chabahar port. This project will insulate Afghanistan from Pakistani blackmail on transit of goods. A further sum of Rs 3,000 crore was also pledged for a rail line linking Afghanistan to Chabahar. Interestingly and coincidentally, all this was happening at a time when a US drone attack killed the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in Baluchistan. The US refused to rule out such attacks in future.
While these developments are encouraging, India cannot take anything for granted in coming months. There are problems, which will arise, because Iran will continue to hedge its bets till it is sure that the US hostility to it will be reduced to manageable levels. While China has lauded the Chabahar initiative, it will carefully assess the project’s impact on its own ambitions across the Indian Ocean. A sullen Pakistan is capable of stooping to any levels to undermine Indian projects, including the Salma dam, which has faced attempted attacks from Baluchistan-based Taliban terrorists in the past. One also cannot help noting that India has a poor record in completing infrastructure projects abroad, on time. Too much is at stake to allow this to be repeated in Chabahar.
Parthasarathy is a former diplomat