My interpreter is matter-of-fact as I board the Iran Air flight from Tehran to the eastern port city of Chabahar. “We know when the flight takes off, but we have no clue how it will come down — so start praying,” she says. Around me, other passengers are doing just that, heads bowed, prayer beads in hand. Iran has one of the world’s worst air safety records, aggravated by U.S.-led sanctions until 2016 that denied access to critical spare parts for ageing aircraft. But the plane lands safely. Just as Iran hopes to do as it faces a fresh threat.
U.S. President Donald Trump last month pulled out from the Iran nuclear deal negotiated under his predecessor, promising to reimpose tough sanctions against Tehran and threatening other countries who may be reluctant to follow his lead. In the past, such sanctions severely hit Iran’s economic relations with global partners. But this time, Iran is preparing to counter that threat by positioning itself as an indispensable hub for transit, connecting distant parts of Asia and beyond, which it hopes will draw the attention of the region’s influential nations.
At the heart of this plan is Chabahar, in southeastern Iran. In 2016, India, Iran and Afghanistan signed a trilateral connectivity agreement that bypasses Pakistan, which has barred Indian and Afghan trucks laden with goods from reaching each other’s markets through its territory. India has already begun to ship wheat to Afghanistan via Chabahar and has promised to invest $20 billion to develop the port and other infrastructure. India has also asked Japan to partner with it in Chabahar. But Tehran isn’t taking any chances by depending only on New Delhi and Tokyo — close partners of Washington. Iran has made clear it is also happy to see Pakistan and China join the Chabahar project.
The port is the best entry point to connect three continents: Asia, Europe and Africa.
Abdol Rahim Kurdi, managing director, Chabahar Free Trade Zone
And along with the other busy Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, Chabahar will be part of the Russia-led 7,200-kilometer-long (4,470 miles) International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that envisages multimodal transportation of freight from India to Astrakhan and beyond. Dry runs by Indian freight companies have shown that this corridor is 30 percent faster than shipping goods through the Suez Canal. It’s that promise that Iran hopes will make countries think twice about pulling out even if the Trump administration imposes fresh sanctions.
“The port is the best entry point to connect three continents: Asia, Europe and Africa,” says Abdol Rahim Kurdi, managing director of the Chabahar Free Trade Zone.
Chabahar’s allure for foreign powers isn’t new. A drive from the airport to the port city takes me through a dusty highway that passes the Martian Mountains — a geomorphological phenomenon that could pass for planet Mars — and the fishing village of Tis that overlooks a decrepit Portuguese mud fort. A 10th-century Arab traveler, Al-Biruni, called Tis the starting point of India. The Russian czars later sent officials here in search of a warm-water port. Today, a similar game is underway, with different players pursuing various objectives.
But Iran wants to use that scramble to its advantage. The World War II airfield we land on in Konarak outside Chabahar is rundown, but it is being replaced by a swankier one later this year. And the port’s free trade zone boasts plush hotels buzzing with visitors from the multiple countries eyeing a toehold here.
For India, the association is old. Urdu, from the Indian subcontinent, is spoken here more than Persian, a cab driver tells me. Through the development of the port, India wants to reclaim the influence it lost owing to the bloody partition in 1947. This port allows India to sidestep Pakistan, which has been blocking its access to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
But the stakes are high for others too. The port sits barely 45 miles from Pakistan’s Gwadar port, where China is investing $46 billion as part of its $2 trillion Belt and Road Initiative. The proximity of these two ports promises a vigorous contest between China and India, both desperate to mark their territories and protect their oil and gas supply lines.
India’s presence in Chabahar also feeds Pakistan’s worries about India encircling it. In 2016, Pakistan arrested a former Indian naval officer based out of Chabahar, who Islamabad claims was supporting terrorism in the restive Pakistani province of Balochistan. India has denied the allegation.
Iran isn’t picking sides. It has given India management control of the Chabahar port for 18 months, which is expected to be extended. But India’s pace in project execution is proving glacial. Former Iranian diplomat Abdolhamid Fekri, now associated with a government think tank in Tehran, wonders why “Indian ships can’t come on a friendship trip to Chabahar and stamp their presence.” Worries about the sanctions Trump has announced, and a struggle to find European banking channels to move funds to Iranian projects, have hobbled India’s efforts, though Iranian officials dismiss New Delhi’s financing worries by pointing to Dubai-based routes that have been used before. India’s Arab-world friends are also dissuading it from investing heavily in Iran. Iranian authorities are categorical that Tehran may consider giving the port to someone else if the Indian firm with the port’s management control — India Ports Global Limited (IPGL) — fails to meet time lines.
Already, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has invited Pakistan and China to invest in Chabahar. For the moment, China hasn’t shown willingness, but it is investing in other Iranian projects. It has built a 10,000-kilometer-long (6,200 miles) rail line connecting its Zhejiang province to Iran, cutting cargo transport times from 44 days to 14 days. India insists the Chabahar project is on track. “[The] Chabahar port project is progressing well,” says Saurabh Kumar, Indian ambassador to Iran. “By the middle of the year, IPGL will take over the operations.” In January, Indian shipping and transport minister Nitin Gadkari described the port as a “growth engine” for India to access Afghanistan and Russia.
Either way, the equation for Iran is simple. Trump hopes sanctions will scare away Iran’s friends. But Iran is counting on its potential as a transit hub as a weapon to counter that. And Chabahar is the tip of that spear.
This article has been updated since it was originally published in May 2018.
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