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US grants sanctions waiver to India on Chabahar: Port is at the centre of Washington’s South Asia strategy

The US has taken a well-thought-out decision to exempt India from sanctions regarding the development of the strategically-located Chabahar port in Iran. The construction of the railway line connecting Afghanistan with Iran will also remain exempt from Washington’s punitive sanctions. This significant decision by the Donald Trump administration is a clear vindication of the role India has been playing in developing Chabahar, and its strategic value for Afghan reconstruction and development. Trump’s decision will undeniably go a long way in safeguarding both Indian and American interests in Afghanistan.

According to a US state department spokesman, “(T)he president’s South Asia strategy underscores our ongoing support of Afghanistan’s economic growth and development as well as our close partnership with India… This exception relates to reconstruction assistance and economic development for Afghanistan. These activities are vital for the ongoing support of Afghanistan’s growth and humanitarian relief.” This is certainly welcome news for India that has already committed significant political and diplomatic resources to the Chabahar project.

Kabul, New Delhi and Tehran have been making concerted efforts to improve energy security and regional connectivity by developing the Chabahar port on the Gulf of Oman. It may be recalled that in 2003, New Delhi signed a deal with Tehran to renew the Chabahar port project. Pakistan was denying India access to Afghanistan, including the ability to send supplies to Kabul. India responded by building a road from Zaranj, on the Afghanistan–Iran border, to Delaram, getting vital access to Kabul from the southwest. However, India still needed a port to send supplies: Chabahar was the answer.

After a long set of discussions, India, Iran and Afghanistan signed a pact in May 2016 that entailed the establishment of a transit and transport corridor among the three countries using Chabahar port as one of the regional hubs. The first trilateral meeting reviewing the implementation was held last month in Tehran.

It is also hoped that once fully operational, the Chabahar port will be able to counter Pakistan’s Gwadar port, which is backed by China. India is anxious about the Gwadar port as it gives Pakistan and China the ability to threaten Indian naval activity and maritime interests in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. The Pakistanis view Chabahar emerging as a road-and-rail transit hub to serve Afghanistan and the landlocked Central Asian states, which threatens the commercial prospects of Gwadar.

Tehran seeks to benefit the most from the Chabahar port as it will be able to connect Iran with international community and recover from the crippling sanctions that have been re-imposed upon it. Afghanistan is keen to renew ties with India, besides becoming less dependent on Pakistan in terms of trade. Pakistan sees its relations with Afghanistan through the prism of its relations with India. Its military seeks a veto on Afghanistan’s relations with India — something Kabul does not accept. Changing this dynamic requires getting rid of Pakistan’s stranglehold on Afghan politics and economy.

As Pakistan continues to refuse Indian goods access to travel overland to Afghanistan, the Chabahar port ensures that Pakistan has no role to play in India’s access to Afghanistan, Central Asia and then Russia. India’s first major shipment of 1,30,000 tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan through Chabahar Port was dispatched from the western seaport of Kandla in October 2017, launching a trade route bypassing Pakistan. India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had termed the shipment as “a gift from the people of India to our Afghan brethren” as well as the “the starting point of our journey to realise the full spectrum of connectivity from culture to commerce, from traditions to technology, from investments to information technology, from services to strategy and from people to politics”.

India was therefore involved in intense negotiations with the Trump administration as it tried to secure a waiver for the Chabahar project. When the defence and foreign ministers of India and the US held talks under the two-plus-two format, Chabahar was one of the topmost agendas. That the US was favourably inclined towards India’s request had became obvious when US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asia Region Alice Wells mentioned India’s positive role in Afghanistan with particular reference to Chabahar. When asked about the impact of the American sanctions on the Chabahar project, Wells said, “We very much appreciate what India has done to provide both assistance to Afghanistan, including through using Chabahar for the delivery of wheat. We also very much appreciate what India has done to allow Afghanistan to diversify its trade relationships, and again Chabahar has played a role there. So those factors will certainly be taken under consideration.”

The Taliban has been historically considered by Tehran as one of its enemies. During its initial military campaign to take control of Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban used to target the Afghan Shia population due to its religious affiliation. It may also be recalled that Iran had almost declared a war against the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan when 11 Iranian diplomats and a journalist were killed by the outfit in 1998. Iran was also a part of the regional grouping (that included India and Russia) that had supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Tehran has historical ties with the Shias and Hazaras of Afghanistan, which gives Tehran the capacity to act as a ‘spoiler’ in the US-led efforts aimed at ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan.

An important factor that seems to have motivated the Trump administration to grant a waiver to the Chabahar port is that if Afghanistan becomes a theatre of US-Iranian confrontation, any politically-negotiated settlement with the Afghan Taliban will become even more difficult. Facing severe security threats from both the Afghan Taliban and Islamic State-K, the Afghan government cannot afford to become another battlefield between the US and Iran. Clearly, it is in the interest of the US to prevent this worst-case scenario from happening.

With terrorists doing all they can to underline the growing vulnerabilities of the Afghan State, the Ashraf Ghani government’s capacity is already under siege. If the US had not made the exemption on Chabahar, the impact of sanctions regime on Iran would have been visible on Afghanistan which needs Iran’s continued support for the much-needed infrastructure development. Thinking strategically, the Trump administration has been wise in not imposing sanctions on the Chabahar port, as its successful operation would bring Afghanistan and India closer, theoretically curtailing the influence of Pakistan and China.

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