As the United States winds down its role in Afghanistan, its neighbours are busy with plans to deal with the blowback and shore up their interests. India and China have taken the lead in Afghanistan’s infrastructural and economic development, and Kabul has been promised military support too. However, prosperity may be denied the resource-rich Central Asian country just yet. Normalisation needs stability, which is premised upon economic development, which in turn is affected by Kabul’s success against the Taliban. For all the assurances given, that may be easier said than done.
With the US retreat from Afghanistan and resources stretched thin everywhere, the most effective way of fighting the Taliban is a coalition. Not only does this share resources but it also allays suspicions of each partner. Iran and India collaborated in a limited manner after the last US withdrawal from the region; this time, Russia may be an additional partner, though Pakistan, China, and the United States have their own agenda.
As modern wars have taught us, victory for an anti-Taliban coalition has not only a military component but also lies in economic and social development. Iran offers one solution to this via its port of Chabahar on the Arabian Sea. India partially developed Chabahar under a 2003 agreement, and as the only Iranian port to have access to the sea, Chabahar eases the pressure on Bandar Abbas, Iran’s major port in the Straits of Hormuz. Tehran has asked India to complete developing the port and connect it to the Trans-Iranian Railway via Fahraj but the latter has been dragging its feet on the project.
Afghanistan has also been eager to see Chabahar grow, creating alternate trade routes than through the Pakistani port of Gwadar. Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan have not been smooth, and despite agreements, there have been difficulties in the trade route. While Iran has already connected the Afghan city of Zaranj to Chabahar, the Indian Army’s Border Roads Organisation constructed a major road between Delaram and Zaranj in 2009, linking Chabahar to the Kandahar-Herat highway.
Chabahar would ease many problems at once – for Iran, it would allow easier access to the ocean and Tehran would be able to draw transit fees for the commodities that would pass through; land-locked Afghanistan would be given an alternative to Gwadar, a little over 100 kilometres from Chabahar; India would be able to address its balance of payments with Iran and bypass its rival, Pakistan, in accessing Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia; pipelines carrying oil & gas from Central Asian republics would also have a much shorter route to the sea, saving millions. Furthermore, Gwadar’s location in the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan makes Chabahar a better choice for international shipping.
Not surprisingly, Washington continues to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds in South Asia. The United States has been negotiating with anyone who might allow it a dignified exit from Afghanistan; on the one hand, it is talking to the “good” Taliban, while on the other, it has repeatedly urged India to play a greater role in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Washington’s military assistance to Pakistan continues unabated, despite Delhi’s strong objections, so that those “Rawalpindi boys [may] be able to face India with dignity.”
However, the rub lies in the sanctions regime implemented by the United States and the European Union on Iran for its nuclear programme. Washington is well aware of the impact the quick development of Chabahar can have on the Iranian economy as well as its ability to evade sanctions and is therefore unwilling to relent in its confrontation with Iran for the sake of making gains in Afghanistan. While both states can tango around inspections forever, the critical issue for Iran is its right to enrich uranium for its reactors. This issue has plagued the non-proliferation regime since its inception in 1968 and was one of the major sticking points in the United States’ negotiations with India on civil nuclear cooperation in 2008.
Even if Washington were willing to consider acceding to Iranian enrichment rights in exchange for the most stringent inspections conditions, it would be impossible to do so. While Iran’s concerns about sovereignty are similar to Indian objections raised in the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee in the 1960s, unlike the latter, the former has signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and is bound by its stipulations. Furthermore, Iran’s support of the Hezbollah and Syria, its relatively opaque and authoritarian system, its Holocaust denial, and sharp anti-Israel rhetoric raises warning flags in multiple global capitals. Allowing Iran to enrich uranium beyond regulations lowers its breakout potential, something no one has the confidence in Tehran to allow. Finally, making an exception for Iran on enrichment, that too so soon after making one for India, would severely destabilise the non-proliferation regime.
Thus, the United States’ policy in one region of the world conflicts with its objectives in another and it takes little imagination to know which goal is more important to Washington. Similarly, it would be surprising if other powers were to kowtow to Foggy Bottom’s wishes. Despite sanctions, India and China have been purchasing oil and iron from Iran; while Russian oil revenue benefits from Iranian crude being under sanctions, Moscow is willing to forego those benefits for geopolitical ones by using Iran against the West. Sanctions have forced Tehran to pivot east, and it remains to be seen how hard the United States Congress is willing to pinch Iran’s largest trading partners – China, India, Japan, and South Korea – to make its point.
India finds itself in a delicate position – it needs access to US trade and technology, and however much it is publicly denied, to help it balance China. Yet its most valuable partner arms Pakistan, is an obstacle in Afghanistan, and complicates ties with Iran. Some in the Indian commentariat fantasise about Delhi playing a role in bringing Tehran and Washington to the table, but that is all it will remain. To play a successful arbitrator, India must have something to offer both sides. India’s geopolitical incompetence and an economy that is committing seppuku as you read leaves little for it to offer. After decades of shirking responsible policy, Delhi is suddenly finding that it has nothing to offer when it counts.