The first phase of Chabahar port was on Sunday inaugurated by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, opening up for India a new strategic transit route to Central Asia through Iran and Afghanistan, without touching Pakistan. The port is expected to be operational by the end of 2018.
The port on the Gulf of Oman, jointly developed by India, is of great strategic importance as Pakistan does not allow India to ship goods through its territory. It also poses a challenge for under construction Gwadar port, some 80km away in neighbouring Pakistan, which is being built with Chinese investment.
New Delhi has already completed the Zaranj-Delaram road in Afghanistan that connects the Iranian border with all four major Afghan cities. India will also help build a $1.6 billion rail line to Zahedan in Iran, which will eventually connect with Mashad in north and provide access to Turkmenistan as well as northern Afghanistan through the Bafq-Mashad route.
In fact, the feeling in Afghanistan is that they would no longer need to depend on Pakistan for transit trade. Weeks before Sunday’s inauguration, a top leader of Afghanistan, Chief Executive Abdullah, said: “Afghanistan used to rely only on one transit road, which was through Karachi. That is not the case anymore. (Now) it’s (also) through Chabahar.” Islamabad, however, sees in this an attempt by India to use Afghanistan to destabilise Pakistan.
Rouhani, however, downplayed the Pakistan angle in his inauguration speech and said the port will bring “more engagement and unity” among regional countries. “We welcome good competition,” he said. “We welcome other ports in the region, we welcome Gwadar’s development.” Nonetheless, experts agree that Chabahar is Iran’s closest sea link to the Indian Ocean, a counterweight to Gwadar port, some 80 km away across the border in Pakistan. The USD 340 million project was constructed
by a Revolutionary Guard-affiliated company, Khatam al-Anbia, the largest Iranian contractor of government construction projects. It involved several subcontractors, including a state-run Indian company, and brings the capacity of the port to 8.5 million tons of cargo annually, from the previous 2.5 million tons. The extension includes five new piers, two of them for containers allowing cargo vessels with up to 100,000-ton captaincy to dock. The port will eventually open a route to eastern and northern Europe through Russia. Iranian state TV said the inauguration was attended by dignitaries from India, Qatar, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries.