India is betting on an Iranian port to reach Central Asia and Europe

On Monday, on the one-month anniversary of Iran's military retaliation against Israel, an Indian minister shook hands with his counterpart in Tehran.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
15 May 2024 Wednesday 11:11
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India is betting on an Iranian port to reach Central Asia and Europe

On Monday, on the one-month anniversary of Iran's military retaliation against Israel, an Indian minister shook hands with his counterpart in Tehran. For the first time, India will have a port in foreign waters, of great strategic interest for its exports to Central Asia and Europe.

After the signature of Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, India has ten years to invest 375 million dollars in one of the two halves of the deep-water port of Txabahar.

Although the project has been dragging on for two decades and was in the freezer since the end of the Trump era, this joint push has caught Washington, Brussels and Tel-Aviv on a new foot.

Not surprisingly, Narendra Modi, who that same day received a mass bath in Benares, is the most pro-Israel of the Indian prime ministers.

The United States has warned, through the spokesperson of the Secretary of State, Vedant Patel, of the "potential risk of sanctions".

The fit between India and Iran highlights something that some would rather not see. The October 7 Hamas raid and Israeli military retaliation on an industrial scale have not only bloodied or disrupted hundreds of thousands of lives; they have also derailed, until further notice, projects that were immediately on everyone's lips, such as the India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor.

An ambitious project that included European, Arab, Israeli and Indian interests, and left out Turks, Iranians and, obviously, Russians. All this, with the secondary objective of raising India as a counterweight to China.

However, New Delhi's diplomacy has read the morass in which the invasion of Gaza has plunged relations between Israel and the Arab world and has moved away from the strangulation in the Straits of Hormuz and Mandeb.

The mentioned corridor, now in doubt, was actually a replica of the international North-South corridor, now re-emerged, but already proposed by Russia, India and Iran at the beginning of the century. And the port of Txabahar had always been a key part of it.

In order not to hurt sensibilities, India presents it as its only access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, avoiding Pakistan's blockade. More so, like the Indian replica at the nearby Chinese-built port of Gwadar in Pakistani Baluchistan.

But in India itself it presents itself as a highway between Bombay and Saint Petersburg – by sea, road, rail and river – through the Caspian or Armenia and Georgia. A shortcut to access central and northern Europe. Something that betrays that New Delhi has also made its own reading of the day after the war in Ukraine. Bad news for the Mediterranean, beyond Piraeus.

India continues to play two cards because it believes that, as the most populous country and the fifth largest economy, it can afford it. In contrast to 2019, when pressure from then-US President Donald Trump led the Indian government to reconsider its purchases of Iranian oil (of which China now owns 90%).

The deep-water port of Txabahar is a State affair and management will be carried out by India Ports Global, dominated by the state port of Bombay. But the ten-year concession – compared to China's 99 in the Sinhalese port of Hambantota – indicates Iranian caution.

The other bet, via Emirates and Arabia, induced by the mirage of the Abraham Accords, had the tycoon closest to Modi, Gautam Adani, as a touchstone. The latter obtained the concession of the old port of Haifa, in Israel (China has built the new one), two years ago, when it already controlled the port of Mundra, the Indian hub of the corridor.

India and Iran, in the end, are neighboring civilizations. Chanakya, the Indian Machiavelli, was born two thousand years before the Florentine.