At the heart of the Pakistan-Iran-India tango lies Chabahar

The operationalization of Chabahar port is significant because India has demonstrated its intention to play on the regional chessboard, even while it balances its own relations with the US and Iran. The old great game just got a new veneer

Written by D. Suba Chandran | Published: November 11, 2017 3:56 pm
modi in iran, modi iran, narendra modi, india iran pacts, india iran news, iran Chabahar port, india Chabahar port pact, india iran narendra modi, india news, latest news The operationalisation of Chabahar port by India has triggered the panic button within Pakistan.

A new churning is taking place in the region, with India announcing its first shipment to Afghanistan, via the Chabahar port in Iran, and Pakistan’s army chief taking a delegation to Iran earlier this week for a series of meetings.

Has India’s Chabahar initiative caused Pakistan to re-engage with Iran? Or, is this a parallel development, addressing bilateral issues and the repercussions of Pakistan’s involvement in the Middle East?

Pakistan’s Iran Predicament

Since Zia ul-Haq’s time, Pakistan’s relationship with Iran has been tense, indifferent and sometimes, even hostile. Zia’s Islamisation strategies were perceived by Shia Tehran as the deepening of Sunnization, creating new stress in the bilateral relationship and emphasising sectarian faultlines inside Pakistan.

High-level visits between Iran and Pakistan became the exception. Afghanistan soon became a much more important neighbour, with the US using Pakistan as a cat’s paw in its own war against the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Meanwhile, Iran-US relations went through the wringer, even as Teheran was bogged down with other issues in the Middle East.

Despite the continuing political tension between Iran and Pakistan, both countries drew closely together on two other matters. First, Pakistani nuclear scientist A Q Khan drew a willing Iran into his own underground network of nuclear linkages that served both sides well. Second, smuggling between the Pakistan-Iran border, especially along the Makran coast, began to take place.

Enter the Middle East Cold War and the Islamic Military Alliance

But the political divide was exacerbated by Saudi Arabia’s expanding influence on Pakistan. Riyadh’s Islamic Military Alliance is now headed by Pakistan’s former army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif. Clearly, the Pakistani government isn’t terribly attracted to the idea, especially because its own Shias, between 30-40 million, are said to comprise about 10 per cent of the total 200 million population. Pakistan’s National Assembly has even discussed Raheel Sharif’s new job and pointed out that there is a need to go slow.

Was Raheel Sharif given the job because he was once the most powerful man in Pakistan and Pakistan is the only country in the Islamic world with a proven nuclear weapon capability ?.

Meanwhile, Teheran’s relations with Saudi Arabia began to deteriorate over the ongoing conflict in Yemen. Riyadh also seemed determined to isolate Qatar, in an attempt to consolidate its leadership in the Muslim Ummah. Its efforts to get the US on board this regional great game were enormously boosted with Donald Trump identifying Iran as the cause of instability in the Arab Islamic American summit in Riyadh in May 2017, even as King Salman looked on.

Certainly, Pakistan being a part of this Summit would not have gone down lightly in Tehran.

Chabahar: Trigger, not the Cause

The operationalization of Chabahar port by India has triggered the panic button within Pakistan. As Delhi faltered in its execution of Chabahar in recent years, Pakistan was cynical and even sarcastic; meanwhile there was the China-supported Gwadar port as well as the Beijing-funded China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, both projects being described as a “regional game changer”.

With Chabahar now in the mix, the regional great game has taken a new turn. Chabahar is not far from Gwadar. As the crow flies, the straight distance is only 171 km, while the road route doubles it to 356 km. Second, Chabahar is more than a port, it is the starting point of a trade and transit corridor that could become parallel to the CPEC as it cuts across Iran and into Afghanistan. Third and most importantly, New Delhi has big plans for Chabahar, to connect it to the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and opening it up to the passage of goods into Russia and onwards.

Gen Bajwa’s Visit: Should India be worried?

India’s political will to walk the talk with Chabahar has exaggerated the bilateral and regional predicament in Pakistan’s west. Islamabad would certainly like to repair its relations with Teheran. Gen. Bajwa’s visit to Iran must be seen in this context, when he met the Iranian president, its defence minister as well as the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

The army in Pakistan has always been all-powerful, but a trend towards greater consolidation of power can now be clearly seen. Gen. Bajwa’s visit to Iran was preceded by a trip to Kabul, where he also met President Ashraf Ghani as well as the top Afghan leadership. Both New Delhi and Teheran, now connected through the Chahabar thread, must be closely watching.

But despite the fanfare of the visit, Gen. Bajwa did not succeed in getting a succulent joint statement with the Iranians. Whatever was made public is mediocre and focussed on border security between the two countries relating hotline communication, border fencing and patrolling, intelligence sharing etc. The fact that Pakistan has to talk about establishing hotlines in 2017 shows the level of communication so far!

The powerful director-general of the media wing of Pakistan’s armed forces, ISPR, Maj-Gen Asif Ghafoor, effusively thanked the Iranian Supreme Leader for a “supportive statement” on Kashmir and said, “It is a long pending dispute between India and Pakistan. Regional peace and security remains at stake unless it’s resolved to the aspiration of Kashmiris in line with UN Resolution.”

Predictably, the Pakistan media sought to project this as Iran’s Supreme leader throwing its “weight behind Pakistan on Kashmir”.

That’s why the operationalization of the Chabahar port in Iran is so significant. India has demonstrated its intention to play on the regional chessboard, even while it balances its own relations with the US and Iran. The old great game just got a new veneer.

D Suba Chandran is Professor and Dean of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) Bangalore. He edits the ‘Armed Conflicts in South Asia’ annual and maintains a portal on Pakistan,

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More From D. Suba Chandran
  1. Irfan Iftekhar
    Nov 13, 2017 at 7:24 pm
    You are an , no body, I repeat no body in the government or the army cares about Chahbahars or dilbahars in Pakistan.
    1. M
      Nov 12, 2017 at 10:35 am
      If Chabahar was such a game changer then India won't be forcing Afghanistan to force Pakistan for India's transit rights. The fact of the matter is using Chabahar will make Indian goods cost prohibitive and time consuming (two no-nos in trade). Chabahar also requires a lot of investment and India doesn't have such deep pockets as China. Chabahar in a way is India's bluff to Pakistan for it to wink and allow it to use the old GT Road. Pakistan on the other hand should remain firm and let India invest in Chabahar. Iranians are tough bargainers and they'll extract maximum leverage. Two other facts are also left out the Afghan area connecting to Chabahar is the hotbed of Taliban and will be hard to transit. Secondly, China has huge energy needs and Iran will need to decide between India and China. And its not very difficult to understand where they can get maximum benefit. It is not Pakistan but India that's encircled and has few choices.
      1. John Ssb
        Nov 12, 2017 at 8:09 pm
        India can handle a billion dollar loss but Pakistan can't with it's trade already shrinking. It shrank 25 in last 5 years only. Plus Indian government is giving lots of subsidy so cost will be cheaper than Pakistan considering Pakistan sells wheat in premium to Afghan which India don't Indian wheat also cost less than Pakistan's. So don't worry we can handle 1-2 billion loss for next 200-400 years considering our forex reserve. Considering ur debt to China world you can't handle even a dollar of loss. Both India China need oil moreover in 20 years India's need gonna surplus China's so don't worry Iran will never choose India or China it will stay with both. It's only Pakistani who think India is getting sided alone. Lol
        1. R
          Nov 13, 2017 at 8:36 am
          Comparing India with Pakistan itself is a big b er :) Pray to God to save Pakistan from further isolation.
        2. i
          iran back. pak dagger stabb. look bak.
          Nov 12, 2017 at 12:54 am
          1. R
            Nov 11, 2017 at 10:13 pm
            The real issue is US continues to treat Iran as the pariah and treats Pakistan's terror tactics as acceptable. India should work on improving US Iran relations as this will give US access to Afghanistan Central Asia. US looks at Iran through the prism of late 70s and is therefore dependent on Pakistan. When US applies pressure on Pakistan, then Pakistani generals will lose their power base and this will bring lasting peace to this region.
            1. K
              Nov 11, 2017 at 8:50 pm
              The discussion on Iran-Pakistan, India-Iran tango is fine the real questions how do the compulsions stack up on the geopolitical chessboard. How does the CPEC impact Iran? How strong are the compulsions vis-a-vis Iran arising from Pakistan's alliance with Saudi Arabia? What leverage does India have in terms of keeping the Iranians honest on Chabahar? Merely talking about a flurry of events and getting excited about it enough to write an article is pointless!
              1. pravin kurdekar
                Nov 11, 2017 at 10:04 pm
                in every strategic venture tgere will be element of risk. you will never get a water tight case. so its ok we have take risk and move forward facing challenges as it comes in way. What is the use of talking like chidambarm?
                1. K
                  Nov 11, 2017 at 11:22 pm
                  My comment was about the article discussing the events not about whether India should play the game or not. In any case, what do you know about the geopolitics in the Arabian peninsula? Specifics would be helpful not a template comment!
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