NEW DELHI - Opening a new trade route to Afghanistan that bypasses Pakistan, India has dispatched its first consignment of wheat to the war torn country via the Iranian port of Chabahar.
The strategic sea route is a significant step in bolstering trade with Kabul that has been hampered because rival Pakistan does not allow India to transport goods to Afghanistan through its territory.
After the shipment was seen off by Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and her Afghan counterpart Salahuddin Rabbani via a joint video conference Sunday, the Indian government called it a “landmark moment.”
In the coming months, six more consignments of wheat totaling 1.1. million tons will be sent from India’s western port of Kandla to Chabahar. From the Iranian port it will be taken by road to Kabul.
The shipment comes days after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on a visit to New Delhi, allayed concerns that the Trump administration’s tough stand on Iran could pose a fresh stumbling block to India’s plans to develop the strategic Iranian port as a regional transit hub.
Easier connectivity to Afghanistan is key for India to step up its economic engagement with Kabul, which Washington has called for as part of its new policy to stabilize the war torn country.
And Chabahar port, in which India is investing $500 million to build new terminals, cargo berths and connecting road and rail lines, is the centerpiece of the strategy to improve linkages not just with Afghanistan, but also to resource-rich Central Asian republics.
“This is the first time that we are getting into Afghanistan through a route different than what traditional routes have been,” said South Asia expert Sukh Deo Muni at New Delhi’s Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses.
Indian leaders expressed optimism about the project, which is still a work in progress. Minister Swaraj called it the starting point of a journey that would spur the unhindered flow of commerce and trade throughout the region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted the launch of the trade route, "marks a new chapter in regional cooperation & connectivity."
The sea route via the Iranian port is the second step taken by India to increase connectivity with Kabul. In June it opened an air freight corridor to provide greater access for Afghan goods to the Indian market.
The Chabahar port is seen as India’s answer to the Gwadar port in Pakistan being developed by China.
The project was conceived almost 15 years ago, but the plans were stalled for years due to U.S. led international sanctions on Iran. Their easing prompted India to sign a trilateral pact with Iran and Afghanistan last year to develop the port.
U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson indicated in New Delhi last week that fresh sanctions on Iran by the Trump administration would not pose a stumbling block to those plans.
“It is not our objective to harm the Iranian people, nor is it our objective to interfere with legitimate business activities that are going on with other businesses, whether they be from Europe, India or agreements that are in place that promote economic development and activity to the benefit of our friends and allies as well. We think there is no contradiction within that policy,” he told reporters in India.
Those words have been welcomed in New Delhi said analyst Muni. “I think there is a far more reassuring feeling in India vis-a-vis the Trump administration than what the initial thought was,” he said.
The shortest and most cost effective land routes between India and Afghanistan lie through Pakistan. However, due to longstanding rivalries between the two countries, India is not allowed to send any exports through Pakistani territory and Afghanistan is only allowed to send a limited amount of perishable goods through Pakistani territory to India.