The lukewarm war

Updated 20 Jul 2020

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

WHEN the Iran-India deal on Chabahar port was announced in 2016, it sent considerable shockwaves through strategic circles in Pakistan, and rightly so. Viewed as part of India’s encirclement strategy, Chabahar was seen not only as a potential rival to Gwadar, but also as an indication of India’s widening regional influence and as a potential outpost for India on Pakistan’s western flank.

Taking a wider-angle look, it also had the potential to cut off Pakistan from Afghan trade as the project, and the accompanying rail link from Chabahar to Zahedan and then on to Zaranj in Afghanistan could eventually have, if not exactly replaced, but at least curtailed Afghan transit trade through Pakistan.

A year later, the capture of India spy Kulbhushan Jadhav, who also operated out of Chabahar, added to these anxieties given that it was unlikely at best that his anti-Pakistan activities were not known to, and tolerated by, Iranian authorities. The noose was tightening and strangulation seemed inevitable with an openly hostile India to the east, a nearly equally hostile Afghanistan — considered to be heavily influenced by India — to the west and now Iran seemingly joining in.

But a lot can change in four years, and recently there were reports that Iran had decided to cut India out of the railway project and go it alone. Quoting sources in the Iranian government, media reports claimed that this was due to India’s reluctance to initiate their part of this project in the light of its increasing bonhomie with the US and also the related fear of sanctions, even though Chabahar had been given a special waiver by the United States.

America’s belligerent attitude has pushed Iran into the Chinese orbit.

Adding to this was a statement by Mohammad Ali Hosseini, the Iranian ambassador to Pakistan, which seemed to obliquely refer to India by mentioning “foreign governments found reluctant in their relations with Iran and need others’ permission for their even normal interactions, for sure they won’t be capable of planning and implementing such long-term cooperation contracts”.

Subsequently, there came a statement from a deputy to Iran’s ports and maritime organisation, Farhad Montaser, saying that India had never been a part of such a deal and that sanctions had nothing to do with Iran and India’s cooperation in Chabahar. But while such diplomatic signalling and denials are par for the course, it is very clear that the regional picture is changing to India’s detriment.

And as far as Iran is concerned, this has less to do with a railway and more to do with a comprehensive deal signed with China. Described as a “sweeping economic and security partnership”, the deal is said to encompass $400 billion dollars of investments and entails cooperation in the military sphere as well.

Following this, there have been several statements from Iran in support of the Belt and Road Initiative and CPEC, with Hosseini even talking about linking Gwadar and Chabahar to China by rail and conjuring up visions of a ‘golden ring’ of China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan.

While the Iran-China deal is said to have been on the cards since 2016, it is clear that it is America’s belligerent attitude towards Iran that has now pushed Iran further into the Chinese orbit, and the corollary effect will likely be a corresponding decrease in Indian influence in Iran. That, in turn, will result in a reduction of the pressure on Pakistan, as hyperbole aside, Chinese involvement in Iran is a net gain for Pakistan, not only because it reduces Indian influence in the post-Galwan world, but also makes Iran a potential partner with a vested interest in Pakistan’s security and reduces the chances of Tehran being a potential adversary.

As for Chinese ingresses into the subcontinent, New Delhi has its own intransigence, and insistence on refracting foreign policy through the prism of domestic political considerations governed by a narrow supremacist ideology. For further proof of that, look no further than Nepal which is being pushed further and further into the Chinese orbit in large part thanks to India’s bullying attitude.

This, the developments in Iran and the all-too recent humiliation at the hands of China in Galwan, will of course push India closer to the US which has in recent weeks upped its rhetoric against China, and has sent aircraft carriers to the South China Sea for the second time this month in a clear show of force aimed at deterring Beijing and boosting the morale of US allies in the region. Coupled with the US reaction to Hong Kong’s new security law and the actions taken against Huawei, first by America and now by the UK, we can see the lines being drawn once again and the beginning of what looks like a new Cold War, with much of the world divided into competing camps whether by design or, in our case, by default.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2020