The ‘cold war’ between the US and China is very much here. The latest example of that rivalry is the decision by Iran to drop India from a key rail project linked to Chabahar Port. In May 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had signed an agreement to develop the Chabahar Port, located only 172km from Gwadar Port. At that time the trilateral agreement was seen as an effort by India to bypass Gwadar for an access to Afghanistan and beyond.
The agreement had raised the spectre of a new proxy war in the already volatile region. The relationship between Iran and Pakistan had already been marred by mistrust and growing Indian influence in its backyard further compounded the problem. The Chinese were also wary of Indian role in Chabahar Port and feared that external players would use proxies to target CPEC particularly in Balochistan. The only way to pre-empt such a scenario for China was to rope in Iran and instead of competing against it, allow Tehran to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
It was because of this reason that merely two months after India signed a Chabahar deal, Chinese President Xi Jingping travelled to Tehran where both sides agreed to work out a 25-year strategic partnership deal. Reports suggested that China would invest $400 billion in next 25 years in Iran. On the other hand, India despite having strong ties with Iran spanning over decades did only lip service. It promised to fund Chabahar-Zahedan rail track but could not deliver despite the fact the US exempted Indian investment of its economic sanctions.
In a recent statement the Iranian Ambassador to Pakistan without explicitly mentioning India by name stated as to why Tehran dropped New Delhi from the rail project. “When some foreign governments [are] found reluctant in their relations with Iran and need other’s permission for their even normal interactions, for sure they won’t be capable of planning and implementing such long-term cooperation contracts,” he said days after Iran decided to build a rail track from its own resources.
What does this development mean for Pakistan? With India being kicked out of the Chabahar Port project and China stepping in, Islamabad clearly has an advantage. Despite being neighbours, relations between Pakistan and Iran have never been smooth. Part of the reason is that both have had divergent interests. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan were in different camps. Also, Pakistan’s close strategic ties with the Arab world particularly with Saudi Arabia made ties with Iran a complicated affair. The two countries have a long list of grievances against each other. Both suspect that they allow elements to use their respective soils against the other.
But with China now investing big-time both in Iran and Pakistan, the two will have convergence on many key strategic and economic issues. Iran will now have interests in Gwadar Port as well as CPEC and hence it will never let elements targeting the Chinese investment operate from its oil. Similarly, with Indian influence receding in Iran, Pakistan would also view Tehran differently. There is definitely going to be a paradigm shift.
However, there are challenges too! Pakistan, no doubt, considers China a strategic partner but at the same time never wants to antagonise the US. Can it maintain that balance in a world increasingly becoming polarised? Not just that the Arab friends of Pakistan may not be happy either seeing close proximity between Iran and Pakistan. This situation requires statecraft and decisions keeping in view long-term strategic benefits for Pakistan. Can the current setup that is fighting for its own survival take such difficult decisions?
Published in The Express Tribune, July 20th, 2020.