Fears are mounting for the future of an ambitious plan to link India with Afghanistan through a new-age Silk Road network running through the Iranian port of Chabahar, government sources have told The Sunday Express. Iran pressed National Security Advisor Ajit Doval for commitments on the port, road and rail project during his visit to Iran, which concluded on Thursday, but was told that New Delhi is unwilling to add to the $100 million promised in 2013.
New Delhi’s second thoughts on the project are driven by concerns that the looming pullout of United States troops, which has already led to a sharp escalation in fighting across Afghanistan, may scuttle a $10.8 billion iron-ore and steel project by a Steel Authority of India Limited-led consortium at Hajigak.
Indian diplomats have also pointed to new strains in Kabul’s relationship with Delhi. President Ashraf Gani’s government in Kabul dropped requests for Indian weapons aid in a bid to soothe Pakistani sensitivities — a development first reported in The Indian Express in October.
“I think the bottom line is that no one is sure what the situation in Afghanistan is going to be like in a year, let alone two decades”, says Sushant Sareen, an analyst at the Vivekananda International Foundation in New Delhi. “It would be foolish to gamble billions on a guess”.
For both Iran and India, the project still makes strategic sense: the countries helped finance and train anti-Taliban forces from 1998 to 2001 — a time when the US came close to recognising the Islamist regime. In addition, Iran and India share concerns over Pakistan, with whom both have clashed on their borders in recent months.
In his meeting with Doval, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, underlined those shared interests, saying the countries are like “neighbours without joint borders”.
However, the fluid situation in Afghanistan means neither country is willing to spend resources on building the expensive train and road transit routes.
The Chabahar project was born in 2002, following the defeat of the Taliban regime, as India searched for an access route to land-locked Afghanistan, that would be free of Pakistan’s control. The project was to have given India access to markets and mineral resources. In turn, Afghanistan would have been freed from the leverage Pakistan now exercises over it.
In 2003, Afghanistan, India and Iran signed an agreement to develop the Chabahar-Zaranj-Delaram route. Later that year, India began work on rebuilding the highway running from Zaranj to Delaram, connecting southern Afghanistan to Iran. The route has been used for trade between India and Iran, though transport costs remain high compared to the road from Kabul to the Wagah border, through Pakistan.
Following then-Iranian President Mohammed Khatami’s 2003 visit to India, the two countries signed an agreement that led to Ashok Leyland Projects being given charge of developing the port and future rail line.
Progress on the project was slow, in part disputes over tariffs and transit regulations proved difficult to resolve. The upgraded road from Afghanistan to Chabahar also fell behind schedule. But in 2010, when SAIL began negotiations for its Hajigak project, New Delhi made a renewed effort to speed up work. The Ministries of Railways and Mines were also involved in discussions to build a railway line to carry out ore from Hajigak to Chabahar.
In contrast, China has pushed forward aggressively on Chabahar, offering an $75 million credit line for ongoing work on the port. Like India, China has plans to invest in Afghanistan’s mineral wealth — in its case, a copper mine at Mes Ainak. Its principal interest in Chabahar, though, is to handle oil from its estimated $14 billion investments in fields at Yadavaran, South Pars, Masjed-i-Suleiman and Azadegan.
For its part, Iran is working on several separate projects to boost connectivity in Afghanistan. In addition to an under-construction 176-kilometre train line from Messhad to Herat, the country is financing the construction of a 5-kilometre tunnel in Tajikistan, which would link Iran, through Herat, and Mazar-e-Sharif, to China.
Lost in transit
Zaranj-Delaram highway: Indian-built road, completed in 2009, connects Iran via the highway to the main Kandahar-Herat highway. Businesses complain it has become dangerous because of Islamist gangs and criminals
Chabahar-Iranshahr-Zahedan-Milak road: Iranian-built road connects Chabahar to Afghan border; now being upgraded. 700 km shorter, when complete, to Kabul-Karachi road
Chabahar-Faraj-Bam railway: Iranian project, will give access from port to Iranian rail network connecting to central, west Asia
Chabahar-Zaranj-Delaram-Hajigak rly: Indian-Iranian project, would link future Indian iron-ore mining operations at Hajigak to Chabahar, 900 kilometres away
Chabahar-Zahedan-Mashhad railway: Iranian project, connecting port to north-eastern Iran