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Iranian Foreign Minister Dr Javad Zarif in his recent visit to Pakistan invited Pakistan to participate in Chabahar seaport project and development of its link with Gwadar Port as he sought to allay Pakistan's legitimate concerns over Indian involvement in the Iranian port. "We are offered to participate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). We have also offered Pakistan and China to participate in Chabahar," Dr Zarif reportedly said while delivering a lecture at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) that had been held to commemorate the 70th anniversary of establishment of Pak-Iran diplomatic relations.

Establishment of Chabahar in the close proximity of the flourishing port of Bandar Abbas makes little business sense for Iran. This is perhaps one reason that Iran offered the Chabahar port to India to make the required investments in it to better serve India's strategic interest.

Also, it is not a viable option for India to transport its goods from India to Afghanistan and Central Asia via Chabahar covering a significant land and sea distance involving multiple loading and unloading of goods at land and ports making the transportation unfeasible both in terms of cost and time.

Chabahar also cannot be of much strategic value to Iran or India as in between sits Gwadar protruding well into the sea overlooking the Indian Ocean and the Gulf. In the event of an armed conflict, Gwadar is best positioned to blockade India's access to Chabahar.

Then what is Chabahar all about? Chabahar is primarily a face-saving compromise which will allow India to digest the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) reality. Also, the port of Gwadar challenges India's ambitions of greater influence and strategic control of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf.

The CPEC has checkmated India's dream of regional dominance and confined its influence to SAARC region, excluding Pakistan.

The dormant Chabahar became alive when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over and signed an agreement to invest and develop the $500 million port, portraying it as a gateway for Indian goods' access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. India believes that connecting Chabahar to Kandla (Gujarat state) will have an immense impact in long-term perspective.

It is, however, not known whether or not India's investment will pay back and yield dividends given the fact that the Trump administration is all set to undo its nuclear agreement with Iran. Insofar as Afghanistan is concerned, it is increasingly in control of Taliban. That Taliban hate India is a fact. They also do not recognise $ 2 billion that India has pumped into Afghanistan to gain their sympathy and erode Pakistan's influence on Taliban. Moreover, eventually, China and Pakistan will play a greater political and economic role in Afghanistan.

The CPEC, of which Gwadar is an essential part, is the most important part of China's global initiative of One Belt One Road (OBOR'. It enjoys global recognition and participation. It is a project based entirely on economic values and welfare for the people falling on its alignment, proximity and beyond. Gwadar aims to be one of the best port enclaves in the region offering competitive cost and time advantage to all who opt to be part of it - in particular the Central Asian states who fall in the proximity of its route alignment.

Gwadar offers seamless sea and land access and transit from central Europe, Africa and the Middle East into China; it also offers a seamless connectivity to other five economic corridors leading into the Pacific, Central Asia, Russia and Europe from land route. There is no better global economic and transport connectivity than OBOR and Gwadar is the starting point of it.

Iran's foreign minister Dr Zarif's attempt to equate Chabahar with Gwadar and thereupon build up a case to link up the two on the basis of reciprocity and strength of the two is not a realistic bargain chip to gain access to the CPEC or seek its extension beyond Pakistan's borders.

Gwadar and Chabahar offer little value-addition to each other. It is quite clear that Chabahar has been hurriedly set up to offer competition to Gwadar and to undermine its importance and equate the two with a view to gaining access to the CPEC from the position of strength. This is not what CPEC is all about. It is a project of fair play and regional fraternity.

Chabahar offers no value-addition to Pakistan nor the CPEC in terms of logistics or economic benefits. Instead, it poses a security challenge to Pakistan. Gwadar-Chabahar linkage will never be in favour of Pakistan.

Iran is Pakistan's most valuable neighbour and Iran should be warmly welcomed and encouraged to be part of CPEC but it must gain access to it through other more viable and secured access points along the long border of the two brotherly countries.

(The writer is former President of Overseas Investors Chamber of Commerce & Industry)

Copyright Business Recorder, 2018

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