Foreign Policy Watch: India-Iran

Reinvigorating the Chabahar Port


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: India-Iran Ties

Mains level: Read the attached story


After months of what appeared to be a go-slow, the Union government has pushed up its interest in using Iran’s Chabahar port to connect to Afghanistan and Central Asia for trade, with the visit of the Union Minister of Ports, Shipping & Waterways to the port.

Chabahar Port

  • In 2016, India signed a deal with Iran entailing $8 billion investment in Chabahar port and industries in Chabahar Special Economic Zone.
  • The port is being developed as a transit route to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
  • India has already built a 240-km road connecting Afghanistan with Iran.
  • All this were expected to bring cargo to Bandar Abbas port and Chabahar port, and free Kabul from its dependence on Pakistan to reach the outer world.
  • Completion of this project would give India access to Afghanistan and beyond to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Europe via 7,200-km-long multi-modal North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC).

Why is Chabahar back in the news?

  • The visit is a chance to strengthen ties and the maritime relationship between the two countries.
  • Due to pandemic, there were less number of visits from India to Iran and vice-versa and the pace of the project is also allegedly slower.
  • This visit will also highlight the importance of Chabahar as a gateway for Indian trade with Europe, Russia and CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] countries.
  • India is keen in developing the Shahid Beheshti port as a “a transit hub” and link it to the International North South Trade Corridor (INSTC), that also connects to Russia and Europe.

What is India’s strategic vision for Chabahar?

When the first agreement for Chabahar was signed by then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003, the plan had a three-fold objective:

  1. To build India’s first offshore port and to project Indian infrastructure prowess in the Gulf
  2. To circumvent trade through Pakistan, given the tense ties with India’s neighbour and build a long term, sustainable sea trade route and
  3. To find an alternative land route to Afghanistan, which India had rebuilt ties with after the defeat of the Taliban in 2001
  • Subsequently, PM Manmohan Singh’s government constructed the Zaranj -Delaram Highway in Afghanistan’s South.
  • It would help connect the trade route from the border of Iran to the main trade routes to Herat and Kabul, handing it over to the Karzai government in 2009.
  • In 2016, PM Modi travelled to Tehran and signed the agreement to develop Chabahar port, as well as the trilateral agreement for trade through Chabahar with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani.

Commencement of operations

  • Since the India Ports Global Chabahar Free Zone (IPGCFZ) authority took over the operations of the port in 2018, it has handled 215 vessels, 16,000 TEUs (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units) and four million tons of bulk and general cargo.

Why is it gaining importance?

  • In the last few years, a fourth strategic objective for the Chabahar route has appeared, with China’s Belt and Road Initiative making inroads in the region.
  • The government hopes to provide Central Asia with an alternate route to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Iran for future trade.

Why is the Chabahar dream taking so long to realise?

  • India’s quest for Chabahar has hit geopolitical road-block after road-block; the biggest issue has been over Iran’s relationship with western countries, especially the United States.
  • In years when western sanctions against Iran increased, the Chabahar project has been put on the back-burner.
  • However, the nuclear talks resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 came into being, the Chabahar port has been easier to work on.
  • In 2018, the Trump administration put paid to India’s plans by walking out of the JCPOA and slapping new sanctions on dealing with Iran.
  • This led to the Modi government “zeroing out” all its oil imports from Iran, earlier a major supplier to India, causing a strain in ties.
  • India also snapped ties with Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August 2021, which put an end to the humanitarian aid of wheat and pulses that was being sent to Kabul via Chabahar.
  • When India restarted wheat aid this year, it negotiated with Pakistan to use the land route to Afghanistan instead.


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