India-Iran plan to build Rail Link to connect Chabahar Port faces hurdles

Chabahar-Zahedan Rail LineNew Delhi: Iran’s offer to India to help build a rail link to connect the strategically located Chabahar Port (which Delhi is helping to expand) with the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) project faces hurdles over terms of contract, a development that would need political intervention for a quick resolution.

Tehran has offered a proposal to Delhi to help build over 500-km-rail link from the Chabahar in Southeast Iran to connect with Zahedan, capital of Sistan-Baluchistan province. Zahedan is connected with the main Iranian railway network and the proposed rail link when concluded will join Chabahar with INSTC and provide access to Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and beyond.

However, Tehran’s proposal faces hurdles over current terms of contract and experts here fear that any future move by Iran to nationalise the proposed Zahedan-Chabahar rail link would jeopardise India’s interests. Experts claim that under such circumstances, India would have no control over the rail link despite investing money to build it. Iranian officials, however, allayed fears and asserted that two countries can politically sort out the initial fears and hurdles.

“India is a new player in this kind of initiative. Iran is also exploring new infrastructure projects in its journey to position itself as a trading hub in the region. The two countries can politically address the differences in the project,” a senior Iranian official as he pointed out that the Chabahar port is suitably located to serve India’s outreach in the region to Afghanistan and beyond as well as link with INSTC to which Delhi is one of the initial signatories.

The issue of India’s participation in the Chabahar port and its link with various transport corridors in Iran was a key item on the agenda of discussions when Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited India mid-August. The issue of Zahedan-Chabahar rail link as part of INSTC was also deliberated when the first meeting of this key transport corridor, post Iranian nuclear deal, was held here last week.

Officials from Russia and Iran, also original signatories of INSTC, as well as proposed entrants for the transport corridor Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and few other Central Asian nations participated at the meeting that discussed customs and insurance matters among other issues at the Delhi meet.

INSTC opens up a sea of opportunities for India and Narendra Modi pushed the idea during his July visit to Central Asia with an eye on realising untapped economic partnership with the Eurasian region, including Russia and Central Asia.

Russia, Iran and India signed the agreement for the INSTC project in 2002. INSTC is the ship, rail, and road route for moving freight between India, Russia, Iran, Europe and Central Asia. The route primarily involves moving freight from India, Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia via ship, rail and road and would reduce time by half for cargo movement from India to Europe through this corridor instead of the Suez Canal route. Current time taken for cargo from Western India to Europe is nearly 40 days.

Dry runs of the two routes in INSTC were conducted in 2014, the first was Mumbai to Baku (Azerbaijan) via Bandar Abbas (Iranian Port) and the second was Mumbai to Astrakhan (Russia) via Bandar Abbas, Tehran and Bandar Anzali (Iran).

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