Home > 2016 > Chabahar: In the Grand Chessboard of India’s Geo-Strategic Calculus

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 31 New Delhi July 23, 2016

Chabahar: In the Grand Chessboard of India’s Geo-Strategic Calculus

Tuesday 26 July 2016

by Jajati K. Pattnaik and R. P. Pradhan

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Tehran marks a new geopolitical beginning in the Persian Gulf region putting Chabahar in the grand chess board of India’s strategic calculus in the emerging Asian geo-spatial architecture. On the other hand, when a strong Asian century and Asian identity is visibly in the making, China, responding to the growing Indo-American cosiness and ‘Asia Pivot’,1 cautioned India of not falling into the Western trap. In the context of growing strategic and economic complexity in the Asia-Pacific and the South China regional and maritime space, India has kept her American partnership vibrant while opening a multi-format political and economic engagement taking shape with China itself—a format of cooperation and conflict at the same time. India-China cooperation is a wish-list. However, China’s String of Pearls2 culminating at Gwadar port and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) signalled real-time challenge to India’s strategic interests in the region. While the Indian media and South Block in Delhi are quite jubilant with India’s strategic victory in Iran, Islamabad and Beijing have reasons to be red-faced over the Indo-Iranian strategic Chabahar port deal, considered as a counter anchor to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

India’s Maritime Goodwill Curve

India philosophically positions herself towards a Maritime Commons orientation and strategises for independent foreign policy of goodwill without any overt confrontation with the Chinese. However, Washington’s Asia rebalancing and larger maritime strategic positioning of other stakeholders leaves India with little option than to look for reliable strategic collaborations that can stand the push-pull at times of eventuality. The Chabahar port deal therefore, like Port development in Bangladesh, is more strategic than mere access collaboration.

While China is poised to strategise the String of Pearls over eighteen port facilities stretching from the Chongjin port in North Korea to the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and Luanda port in Angola, two very prominent developments in the regional maritime space in the last few months have been very disappointing from the standpoint of Beijing’s interests. In February, Bangladesh scrapped the China-proposed deep sea port, Payra, and India seems to have wide options.3 Meanwhile, Japan is also expected to develop another deep sea port—Matarbari—in Cox’s Bazar for Bangladesh. In May this year, India successfully and strategically dislodged China from its critical ambition in the Persian Gulf. Just about 72 km away from Gwadar port, India signed the strategic Chabahar port agreement with Iran which analysts describe as India’s calibrated stroke against China’s expanding regional network. Net implication: India possibly plucked away a few pearls leaving the Chinese string scrambled and shattered. In the process, India is carefully but creatively crafting a strategically reliable Maritime Goodwill Curve in the region which is likely to be complimented with Japanese capital and Washington’s Asia Pivot equations. China’s ‘Nine Dashes’4 against all her maritime boundary countries are also smaller but sources of strategic relevance to the Indian Maritime Goodwill Curve.

Chabahar: Geopolitical Anchor

India and Iran are inevitable to each other in the larger geo-strategic paradigm of Asian connecti-vity. India’s geographical setting is perceived in the broader canvas of the Indian Ocean and its strategic depth in the west spreads up to the eastern coast of Africa through the Strait of Hormuz, and in the east it extends up to the South China Sea including the Strait of Malacca, and in the south it expands up to the Antarctic.5 Conversely, Iran‘s geostrategic location can add to India’s benefits in securing its national interest, and Indo-Iranian partner-ship accords primacy to materialise their objectives in this extended strategic orbit.

During Prime Minister Modi’s visit, India and Iran signed a dozen agreements like a contract to develop the strategic Chabahar port; a pact to set up an aluminum plant; and one on laying a railway line for India’s connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Moreover, India, Iran and Afghanistan also signed a tripartite agreement on Chabahar port for a land-cum-sea corridor for the transit of goods to Afghanistan and Central Asian countries circumventing Pakistan.

It is pertinent to mention here that Afgha-nistan is the land-connect to Central, South and West Asia and it could be a major transit point for trade and energy between India and Iran. Further, the 217-kilometre Zaranj-Delaram highway, built by India in 2009, is linked to the ‘Garland highway’ of Afghanistan connecting Zaranaj with Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz.6 Thus, Indian and Iranian goods from the Chabahar port across the land corridor of Iran would traverse Zaranj and other cities of Afghanistan through these highways. On the other hand, goods from Afghanistan would disembark at the Chabahar port through the land corridor of Iran.7 So, India and Iran using the land route of Afghanistan can transport their goods to the Central Asian countries. As Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, “Chabahar port can serve as a point of connectivity between different countries, especially India and Afghanistan. It can also play a pivotal role in Iran-India cooperation on various industries including aluminum, steel, and petrochemicals.”8 Rouhani added: “To develop Chabahar port and the railway in the region, we can benefit from the investments made by other Asian and European countries as well as their technology.”9

Source: http://www.railnews.co.in/india-iran-plan-to-build-rail-link-to-connect-chabahar-port-faces-hurdles

Chabahar: Gateway to INSTC

Chabahar is the gateway to the International North-South Transport (INSTC) Corridor project which, in terms of time and space, affords better opportunities to India to have access with Europe and Russia. The corridor links India and Iran with Europe and Russia involving a four-fold transportation process. These are: (a) in the first stage, there would be trans-shipment of goods from the ports in India to the ports of Bandarabbas and Chabahar in Iran; (b) in the second stage, there would be transit of goods by the Iranian Railways to the ports of Bandar Anjali and Bandar Amirabad on the shores of the Caspian Sea; (c) in the third stage, there would be passage of goods through the Caspian Sea to the port of Astrakhan in Russia; and (d) in the fourth stage, there would be transit of goods through road and railways in Russia across Eastern Europe to Central and Western Europe.10

An optimistic introspection of the project indicates that it would fetch gains for the parties engaged in it. One major advantage of the North-South corridor is that it covers 6245 kilometres, whereas the present maritime transport route across the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea is 16,129 kilometres.11

Undoubtedly, the North-South Corridor would reduce the cost of transportation by thirty per cent and transit period by forty per cent.12 Further, if this is connected with the ongoing South-East Asian Transport Corridor, it would provide an outlet to both India and Iran for better economic integration with other regional economic groupings such as the European Union (EU) and Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). However, the realisation of the project hinges upon the political will as well as interest of the international investors and transport bidders to undertake such a mega- project. As Nitin Gadkari, the Union Road Transport, Highways and Shipping Minister, said in Tehran, ‘The inking of commercial contract to build and run the strategic port of Chabahar will help India gain a foothold in Iran and win access to Afghanistan, Russia and Europe, thus circumventing Pakistan.” He further added: “The distance between Kandla and the Chabahar port is less than the distance between New Delhi and Mumbai, and so what this agreement does is to enable us quick movement of goods first to Iran and then onwards to Afghanistan and Russia through a new rail and road link.”13

Chabahar: Corridor of Gas Pipeline

Chabahar is highly significant from India’s geo-economic perspective and it could be a potential corridor of the Indo-Iran gas pipeline project. Iran has the second biggest natural gas reserves in the world with proven natural gas reserves of 1187 Tcf. Out of this; more than 60 per cent of Iran’s natural gas reserves are situated in the offshore fields.14 With the lifting of sanctions, India is poised for deeper energy collaboration with Iran to meet its growing energy needs and is geared up to import around 400,000 barrels per day in 2016-2017.15 New Delhi is exploring several possible options for the extraction of gas from Iran.

There are two possible routes: one is an overland gas pipeline and the other is an offshore gas pipeline. It is pertinent to mention here that the overland gas pipeline (Iran-Pakistan-India) called the IPI is now a past episode, almost left abandoned. The idea of the IPI gas pipeline, termed as the ‘peace pipeline’, was broached in 1993. The proposed gas pipeline, covering around 2275 kilometres, would have started from the South Pars gasfield of Iran in the Persian Gulf and after passing through the Khuzdar city of Pakistan, one of its branches would have reached Karachi and the other India by Multan.16 But Pakistan’s obstinate approach largely marred the prospects of the IPI.

Moreover, India had also genuine concerns over the safety and security of the gas pipeline given the nature of the recent spate of terrorism in Pakistan. In this circumstance, the only alternative lies in having an Iran-India offshore gas pipeline. It is being viewed that the underwater gas pipeline, if it starts from the Chabahar port in Iran, would cover around 684 miles across the bed of the Arabian Sea to deliver gas at the Gujarat coast.17 In this context, Chabahar would prove immensely useful to meet India’s growing energy needs bridging the gap in the demand-supply mechanism between India and Iran.


In the larger geopolitical context, the Chabahar port deal is no doubt a strategic victory for India. However, Chabahar for India is only a small segment of the larger strategic configu-ration. Similar to the Chinese String of Pearls, India does have a lager vision of port and maritime collaborations in as many as twenty-four locations. However, India does not match with China in terms of real time investment like US $ 40 billion Silk Route Fund or the huge and multi-format investments/assistance in the ASEAN region. What goes in favour of India, however, is that a strategic alternative to China is slowly but visibly taking shape in the region and New Delhi for all practical purposes is not alone.

List of Agreements /MoUs signed during the visit of the Prime Minister to Iran 

(May 23, 2016)

    MoU   Description

(I) India-Iran Cultural The objective is to

Exchange Programme extend the CEP for the period 2016-2019 covering the areas of culture and art; radio,
TV, mass media and cinema; and relevant general and financial terms.

(II) MoU between The MoU seeks to

the Ministry of create a Joint

External Affairs (MEA) Secretary/Director

of India and the General policy

Ministry of Foreign dialogue as well as

MoU Description

Affairs (MoFA) of Iran on Policy Dialogue encouraging new institutional mechanisms between between Governments and Interaction between think tanks on both sides. There is also a Think Tanks. provision for a conference on contemporary issues of regional and global significance.

(III) MoU between Foreign Service Institute, This MoU is intended to enhance cooperation MEA and the School of International between the two parties for training of diplomats Relations, Iran’s MoFA and exchange of eminent speakers.

(IV) Implementation Protocol (IP) between The IP fleshes out the specific cooperation

Department of Science and Technology, Ministry between the two sides pursuant to the 2003 of S&T and Iran’s Ministry of Science, MoU and covers areas like exchange of Research and Technology on Cooperation in experiences, seminars, conferences etc. the Fields of Science and Technology

(V) MoU between Indian Council for Cultural The MoU provides for institutional mechanisms

Relations and Islamic Culture and Relations for cooperation between ICCR and ICRO and lays Organisations of the IR Iran down the modalities for the cooperation.

(VI) Bilateral contract on Chabahar port for The contract envisages development and operation port development and operations between for 10 years of two terminals and five berths IPGPL [India Ports Global Private Limited] with cargo handling [multipurpose and general] and Arya Banader of Iran capacities.

(VII) MoU between EXIM Bank and Iran’s Ports This MoU is intended for the purpose of credit and Maritime Organisation [PMO] on current of USD 150 million for Chabahar port.

specific terms for the Chabahar Port project

(VIII) Confirmation Statement between This confirms the availability of credit up EXIM Bank and Central Bank of Iran to INR 3000 Crore for the import of steel rails and implementation of Chabahar port.

(IX) MoU between ECGC [Export Credit The MoU seeks to establish a framework of Guarantee Corporation] Limited of India and cooperation between ECGC and EGFI in

the Export Guarantee Fund of Iran (EGFI) supporting and encouraging foreign trade and foreign investment between India and Iran and, where appropriate, the supply of goods and services from their respective countries as part of a project to a third country.

(X) MoU between National Aluminium The objective is for the two parties to jointly

Company Limited (NALCO) and the Iranian explore the possibility of manufacturing Mines and Mining Industries Development aluminium metal by setting up of a smelter and Renovation Organisation (IMIDRO) on joint venture basis in Iran and/or entering into tolling arrangements with smelters in Iran or any other form of business collaboration including sale of alumina etc.

(XI) MoU between IRCON and Construction, The MoU will enable IRCON to provide requisite

Development of Transport and Infrastructure services for the construction of Chabahar-Zahedan Company (CDTIC) of Iran railway line which forms part of transit and transportation corridor in trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan. Services to be provided by IRCON include all superstructure work and financing the project (around USD 1.6 billion).

(XII) MoU for cooperation between the The aim is for facilitation of exchange of information

National Archives of India and the National and knowledge in the field of archival matters Library and Archives Organisation of the through exchange of manuals, guidelines, rules, Islamic Republic of Iran publications and other special literature on archival topics.

Source: Media Centre, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, May 23, 2016. 

http://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/26841/List+of+AgreementsMOUs+signed+during +the+visit+of+Prime+Minister+


1. Asia pivot is the major foreign policy initiative of the Obama Administration in strategically rebalancing the American interests from Europe and West Asia towards East Asia. Atlantic Foreign Policy watcher Matt Schiavenza citing Justin Logan of the Cato Institute wrote: “Obama is a firm believer in the pivot: he even prefers the term to the more neutral ‘re-balancing’ introduced as a softer touch by his administration”. He further observed: “Nevertheless, the ‘pivot to Asia’ isn’t just whimsy — for all the trite sloganeering around the ‘Asian Century’, the continent will play an increasing role in American foreign policy going forward. So no—the pivot isn’t reversible, even as the rest of the world continues to matter, too.” See, Matt Schiavenza, “What Exactly Does it Mean That the US is Pivoting to Asia?” April 15, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/04/what-exactly-does-it-mean-that-the-us-is-pivoting-to-asia/274936/ accessed on May 30, 2016.

2. The term String of Pearls was originated by the Booz Alllen Consultants in a 2003 Report to the Pentagon illustrating Chinese commercial and naval grip in the Indian Ocean to create ‘nodes of influence in the region’. See, Iskander Rehman, “China’s String of Pearls and India’s Enduring Tactical Advantage”, June 8, 2010, http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/ChinasStringofPearlsandInd iasEnduringTactical Advantage_irehman_080610 accessed on May 30, 2016. It was also interpreted as a Chinese geopolitical strategy to control the critical sea lines of comm-unication from the Strait of Malacca lying between Peninsular Malaysia and the Sumatra of Indonesia in the East to the Strait of Hormuz between the Gulf of Oman and Persian Gulf and the Strait of Mandeb between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa.

3. “Bangladesh Scraps China-Proposed Deep Sea Port: India Offers Help to Develop Another”, Zee News, February 8, 2016, http://zeenews.india.com/news/south-asia/bangladesh-scraps-china-proposed-deep-sea-port-india-offers-help-to-develop-another_1853296.html accessed on May 22, 2016.

4. Nine Dashes is an imaginary U-shaped line within a 1.4 million square mile area around the South China Sea where China claims sovereignty leading to territorial dispute between China and other littoral states of the region. The Philippines has taken the dispute to the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Hague. Washington strongly refutes the Chinese claim and a series of legal and historical evidences are traded for claim verification. In this context, Jeffrey A. Bader brought to the fore the American interests in the South China Sea. These are: ‘to ensure freedom of navigation’; ‘to prevent use of force or coercion to resolve claims either to territory or to maritime rights’; ‘to advocate for respect for international norms and law for resolving all such issues’; ‘to ensure that all countries, including the US, have the right to exploit the mineral and fish resources outside of legitimate Exclusive Economic Zones’; and ‘to prevent a US ally, the Philippines, from being bullied or subject to use of force. to ensure that the rights of all countries, not merely large ones, are respected’. See, Jeffrey A. Bader, “The U.S. and China’s Nine-Dash Line: Ending the Ambiguity”, Brookings Opinion, February 6, 2014., http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2014/02/06-us-china-nine-dash-line-bader accessed on May 30, 2016.

5. C. Christine Fair, “Indo-Iranian Ties Thicker than Oil”, The Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. II, No. 1, March 2007, http://meria.idc.acil/journal/2007/issue1/jv11noa9.html accessed on February 19, 2016.

6. Sudha Ramachandran, “India Takes a Slow Road, Asia Times, January 27, 2007, http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/1A27D04.html accessed on January 15, 2016. For details refer, Pattnaik Jajati K., “India-Iran Bilateral Relations in the Contemporary Period” in Anwar Alam (ed.), India and Iran: An assessment of Contemporary Relations, New Delhi: New Century Publications, 2011, p.116.

7. Ibid.

8. “Iran, India, Afghanistan Pen Trilateral Transit Pact”, Tehran Times, May 23, 2016, http://www.tehrantimes.com/news/402750/Iran-India-Afghanistan-pen-trilateral-transit-pact accessed on May 23, 2016.

9. Ibid.

10. Sudha Ramachandran, “India, Iran, Russia Map out Trade Route”, Asia Times, June 29, 2002, http://www.atimes.com/ind-pak/DF29f02.html accessed on May 24, 2016.

11. Ibid.

12. “North-South Corridor, A Special opportunity for Iran’s Activation in International Trade”, Iran International Magazine, No. 26, November 2003, http://www.iraninternationalmagazine.com/issue_26text/north-south.htm accessed on October 19, 2010.

13. “India commits Huge Investment in Chabahar”, The Hindu, May 23, 2016, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/narendra-modis-iran-visit-nitin-gadkari-says-india-to-invest-rs-1-lakh-crore-in-chabahar/article8636035.ece accessed on May 23, 2016.

14. “The World’s Biggest Natural Gas Reserves”, November 12, 2013, http://www.hydrocarbons-techno logy.com/features/feature-the-worlds-biggest-natural-gas-reserves/ accessed on May 24, 2016.

15. Suchetana Ray, “How the Strategic Chabahar Port May Bolster India-Iran Ties”, Hindustan Times,  May 24, 2016. http://www.hindustantimes.com/business/chabahar-to-deepen-india-iran-ties/story-opiqryig70sUfzqm0wssEN.html accessed on May 24, 2016.

16. Ariel Cohen, Lisa Curtis and Owen Graham, “The Proposed Iran-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline: An Unacceptable Risk to Regional Security, The Heritage Foundation, May 30, 2008, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2008/05/the-proposed-iran-pakistan-india-gas-pipeline-anunacceptable-risk-to-regional-security accessed on September 1, 2010.

17. “Under Water Gas Pipeline with India on Track”, http://www.zawya.com/story.cfm/sidZAWYA20100526043759/Underwater accessed on October 19, 2010.

Dr Jajati K. Pattnaik, who specialises in Gulf Politics, is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Indira Gandhi Government College, Tezu, Arunachal Pradesh (affiliated to the Rajiv Gandhi University, Itanagar). Dr R.P. Pradhan, who specialises in International Trade, is an Associate Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani (K.K. Birla Goa Campus), Goa.