The bonhomie that marked the three-day visit of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to India reflects a growing convergence of interests between the two countries bound by ancient cultural ties. Be it the desire to see a stable government in Afghanistan or the determination to fight the scourge of terrorism, the two countries are on the same page. Both New Delhi and Tehran are wary of Sunni militancy incubated and nurtured in Pakistan. Also, there is a huge potential for deepening bilateral trade ties. A great example of the converging economic and trade interests is provided by Iran’s Chabahar port, which is being developed by India. This will not only open a new gateway to landlocked Afghanistan but also bypasses Pakistan, thereby breaking its stranglehold. The first phase of Chabahar port project was inaugurated last December. Iran is a crucial component of India’s geopolitical strategy on the western plank as it offers access to its vast energy resources, connectivity and a huge investment opportunity. The Chabahar port facilitates enhanced trade between India and Afghanistan without having to depend on Islamabad for route access. By developing this strategically important port in the Iranian city of Chabahar, just about 140 km from Pakistan’s Gwadar port being developed by China, India has demonstrated its capabilities and leadership to strengthen trade in the region without involving Pakistan, which has consistently denied transit access to New Delhi to send goods through the land route. It opens a new strategic transit route between Iran, India, Afghanistan and other landlocked central Asian nations. It can also counter China’s aggressive pursuit of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Under a tripartite deal, India has committed $500 million for the Chabahar project to be fully operational by the end of this year. India now has an opportunity to use Chabahar project as a launch pad to integrate it with the larger connectivity project — the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) — initiated in 2000 by Russia, India and Iran. Iran also wants India to set up an industrial complex next to the port and build a railway line to its Afghan border. A string of crucial bilateral agreements was signed during Rouhani’s visit. He became the first head of state of a foreign country to offer prayers at the historic Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad. Significantly, he lauded India’s syncretic culture and religious harmony. Rouhani not only offered to liberalise visa procedures for Indians but also offered a greater access to its oil resources. His visit saw signing of agreements on visas, double taxation avoidance, an extradition treaty and cooperation in medicine and agriculture. During their interaction, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rouhani acknowledged terrorism as a common challenge to both the countries.