A closer look at Chabahar, Iran’s ‘little Pakistan’
Chabahar, the Iranian port in ‘Sistan and Balochistan’ province, has for the past decade or so ignited a peculiar interest and generated heated debate in Pakistan’s policy circles as a potential competitor to Gwadar, the newly developed port on Pakistani side in the same Bloch land, named as Balochistan province on this side of the border.
I had the opportunity to visit Chabahar, at the end of January 2017. The main objective was to participate in a conference titled “Silk Road and Transport Diplomacy” at the invitation of Allameh Tabataba’i University, Tehran. The conference involved scholars from 9 countries Afghanistan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, South Korea, Russia, Turkey and the host, Iran. I had the privilege to chair a session and also presented a paper titled “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as a Catalyst for Transport Diplomacy in the Silk Road Region” in another.
As the exposure to Chabahar Free Zone and the port facilities itself was part of the visit – which, while did not go exactly the way it was planned by the organizers – indeed turned out to be a rare opportunity for me as a Pakistani analyst to have a first-hand look at and information about the city, the port, the investment opportunities and how the Iranian authorities are positioning it. Add to it the glimpses of the city itself, part of which the Iranians themselves label as ‘little Pakistan’ – owing to its ethnic, cultural and linguistic affinities with Pakistani Balochistan.
The deliberations of the conference and other interactions make is very clear that Iranians desire to transform Chabahar into a major port and they wish to develop their coastline closer to Pakistan as a major economic and tourist/recreational strip. Which country of the world would not like to do so, if it is blessed with a coast like Makran, be it on Pakistani, or on Iranian side? Not hard to understand. Natural, it becomes, indeed. In fact, a nation not going for it would, for all the right reasons, runs the risk of being labelled as a short-sighted one.
Nonetheless, what has been fueling interest, rather worries, of Pakistanis is not the development of the port per se, and perceived economic cooperation for Gwadar, but it primarily is India’s involvement in the whole scheme of things.
India, as is well-known, has been an active and generous partner for Iran in this project. And it also needs a little explanation that Indian designs are not simply to find a way to Afghanistan and beyond that to Central Asia bypassing Pakistani territory – which in itself is quite ‘strategic’ than something pushed by or catering to the needs of the market forces. A presence in Chabahar, which India already has and is set to increase, simply means an attempt to encircle – at least partially – Pakistan. And it is not just Pakistan. Even a layman can understand it well that India is also playing this card – successfully or otherwise, only time will tell – to dent Chinese connectivity and development initiatives in the broader region as well. Read more