Editorial

China’s budding relationship with Iran is a threat to India

| Updated on July 19, 2020 Published on July 19, 2020

Not taking part in the Chabahar-Zahedan rail line can only be a step back for India. If China builds a firm base in Iran, it would reduce India’s chances of rebuilding its position in the country

This may well be the emergence of a new diplomatic grouping that could be a thorn in India’s side for years to come. India’s long-time ally, Iran, pushed to the wall by US President Donald Trump’s crippling sanctions, has now turned to China, which has pledged a staggering $400-billion worth of investments in the cash-strapped Persian Gulf nation’s oil-and-gas, infrastructure and transportation sectors as part of a 25-year economic and military partnership. Because of its location, Pakistan will obviously fit perfectly into this geopolitical jigsaw puzzle. India quickly felt the impact of these new global linkages when Iran, citing delays in Indian funding, declared it would go it alone with building the 628-km Chabahar-Zahedan railway line originally slated to be developed in partnership with India’s state-owned Ircon. India received a US sanctions waiver to proceed with its investments at Iran’s Chabahar Port, but it wasn’t clear whether this go-ahead extended to the rail link; hence, India had been dragging its feet on signing. In all likelihood, China will now partner this project. Also, the Iran-China agreement clearly includes military ties, equipment supplies and intelligence sharing. It also brings the Chinese close to the Strait of Hormuz, the key choke-point for Middle Eastern oil.

India and the Islamic Republic have traditionally celebrated their age-old “civilisational ties.” But the nations have been drifting apart in recent years, partly due to Trump’s pressure on India not to be a nuclear sanctions-buster and also because India has been moving closer to the US. Last year, India, once Iran’s biggest oil customer, ceased buying Iranian oil and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, speaking to Indian journalists in Tehran, chastised New Delhi for letting itself be “bullied” by the US. He said Iran had expected India, as an old friend, to be “more resilient vis-à-vis US pressure”. The fraying ties showed in Iran’s unexpectedly sharp criticism of India occasionally. After the Article 370 abrogation, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said his country had good relations with India but expected New Delhi “to adopt a just policy towards the noble people of Kashmir.” Iran also wants peace on the other side of the border with Afghanistan, and it seems to have decided that only Pakistan can help to bring this about. If China builds a firm base in Iran, it would reduce India’s chances of rebuilding its position in the country.

Not taking part in the Chabahar-Zahedan rail line can only be a step back for India. India would be reducing its presence in Iran just as the Chabahar port is at the take-off stage. In the last few weeks, India has sent two consignments of grain for Afghanistan via Chabahar. It had also hoped to build trade to the Central Asian states and even Russia via the port. Mercantile journals report that Chabahar port’s traffic has increased sharply in the 11 months till February. It would be a spectacular own goal if we didn’t maximise its potential.

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Published on July 19, 2020
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