Route 606 is the numerical tag assigned to the strategic road that runs between Delaram and Zaranj in neighbouring Afghanistan. If you were to drive up north from the Iranian port city of Chabahar and reach Zahedan close to the Iran-Afghanistan border, Zaranj would be around 200 km away.
When construction of the Zaranj-Delaram highway was completed a decade ago, development of the Chabahar port in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province seemed like a distant dream. But a lot has happened since.
The 215-km-long highway, built by India at a cost of Rs 600 crore, is now an integral and crucial cog in the wheel of regional connectivity that New Delhi has been pushing for. This highway that was built in the face of opposition by the Taliban is now part of the vital trade transit route connecting Afghanistan with Chabahar on Iran’s south-eastern coast.
And Phase I of Chabahar, built with Indian help, is operational. An Indian diplomat who’s seen the Shaheed Beheshti terminal (Phase I) at Chabahar come to fruition remarked: “It’s like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle falling into place. The Delaram-Zaranj highway was built a decade ago and with Chabahar, it’s as though the missing links are gradually being put in place for enhanced connectivity.”
But it isn’t merely Afghanistan that New Delhi is seeking to access via Chabahar while bypassing Pakistan. Its strategic plans include access to the land-locked Central Asian nations of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. And even to Russia further north and Europe in the west.
Unlike the major Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, Chabahar is close to India’s western coast. It also gives India a presence in the maritime domain in the region, especially with the Chinese-built Gwadar port in Pakistan’s Balochistan province merely 70 km away.
“Chabahar is pivotal for regional connectivity,” remarked the Indian diplomat. And the Iranians are in agreement. As one of them told SNI while pitching for connectivity via Chabahar: “It is the gateway to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Europe too. If India wants to access Europe, the shortest, safest and cheapest route is through Iran.”
As Arun Kumar Gupta, managing director of Indian Ports Global Ltd which took over the Shaheed Beheshti terminal’s operations in December 2018 told the ‘Chabahar conference’ held here on February 24: “Geographically, the port is very well-located. It’s on the cross-route of the North-South and East-West corridors.” Gupta also drew attention to the Zaranj-Delaram highway which in turn is connected to the Garland Highway—the latter connects the major Afghan cities of Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat and Kunduz.
The garland highway has played a useful role in enabling the distribution of wheat shipments that have gone from India to Afghanistan (via Chabahar) to its various regions. India is also assisting Iran with a 500-km rail link between Chabahar and Zahedan.
Later, speaking to SNI, Gupta also drew attention to the proximity of Chabahar to the Indian ports of Kandla, Mundra and JNPT on the western coast. “Chabahar is only 550 nautical miles away from the Indian ports of Kandla and Mundra. And JNPT (Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust in Navi Mumbai) is only 780 nautical miles away,” he noted.
However, even as India and Iran work in tandem on regional connectivity, it seems Tehran is keen that New Delhi put in even greater heft behind Chabahar and speed up investments in its Free Trade Zone. “India is mature and wise enough to know its interests. We’re not dictating anything to India for it knows the value of Chabahar in terms of connectivity to Central Asia, Russia and Afghanistan,” said Iranian sources.
To bolster Iran’s case for being the bridge for India to countries in the region and beyond, the sources said, “Iranian railways is connected to Turkey. It can also connect to Iraq, Jordan and Syria. The Central Asian countries too want to choose Iran as the transit country for trade… The highway from Bandar Abbas to Chabahar too is being upgraded.”
India, while aware of the advantages the Chabahar port has to offer for regional connectivity, acknowledges the role sanctions have played in slowing down investments. While securing its long-term strategic interests, New Delhi also knows that the port has to be financially viable for IPGL to operate and for Indian business to use as a trade and transit hub.
However, amid an atmosphere of uncertainty because of the sanctions—Chabahar has a waiver because it enables routing of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan—India is pressing ahead with its efforts to bolster connectivity.
India sees Chabahar as pivotal to the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) in which it is a participating country. This Corridor connects the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea via Iran and on to Russia and northern Europe. Further, Indian diplomats also draw attention to India being admitted to be a part of the Agreement on the Establishment of an International Transport and Transit Corridor (more popularly known as the Ashgabat Agreement) between Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
“If made a part of NSTC and the Ashgabat Agreement, Chabahar will be useful as it will the seamless movement of traffic,” said an Indian diplomat. Further, he said that “there is more or less consensus on formalising the inclusion of Chabahar as a part of the NSTC and the Ashgabat Agreement.”
The importance of NSTC for India was in focus yet again when its Seventh Coordination Council meeting was held in Tehran just days after the Chabahar Conference. During the meeting, India said that it was possible to reduce both the time and cost of transportation of goods from India to Russia by as much as 40 per cent by using this corridor.
In an effort to promote the NSTC and to demonstrate how Chabahar can be a viable part, India even suggested a Friendship Motor Rally that was held last year. The month-long rally had participants from India, Iran, Russia and Azerbaijan. Starting from Bandar Abbas, the rallyists went up to St Petersburg in Russia and on the way back went to Chabahar.
Clearly, Chabahar port may be some time away from taking off. But future strategic gains are driving regional interest in this port.