Iran & the Arabian Sea: The port of Chabahar and its strategic implications

SUMMARY

The south-eastern port of Chabahar in Iran will open this year. It promises to open up maritime trade with Central Asia as well as with Iran itself. However, companies should be aware of the security risks involved.

INTRODUCTION

On 23 May 2016, Afghanistan, India and Iran signed a trilateral agreement to develop the port of Chabahar, located in Iran’s south-eastern Sistan-Baluchistan province, into a fully operational deep sea port. Chabahar is technically comprised of two ports, Shahid Beheshti and Shahid Kalantari. Each of these ports has five multi-purpose berths, although Beheshti reserves one berth for oil tankers, and Kalantari one for the Iranian coastguard.

The port will be a keystone in a developing trade route, championed by India, which will allow Delhi to move freight from its own territory to Europe without it passing through Pakistan, India’s longstanding strategic rival. Delhi has invested around USD500 million in the port. The money will be spent expanding Chabahar’s berthing capacity for maritime vessels, and increasing the port’s overall capability to handle large quantities of goods. The new port will be capable of handling multiple forms of cargo, ranging from loose bulk commodities to oil. In particular, Indian money will be spent completing a 600m container loading facility.

Although discussion of the deal has been ongoing since 2003, Iranian acquiescence to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which lifts international nuclear-related sanctions on the Islamic republic in exchange for restrictions – such as limits on the amount of heavy water it can store – on its nuclear programme, has expedited the process.

Chabahar will be Iran’s first truly oceanic port, as it is situated on the edge of the Gulf of Oman. The nearest existing port is Shahid Rajaee situated in the Strait of Hormuz, which at its narrowest point is only 54km wide. Easy access to the ocean will simplify maritime trade flows, and alleviate pressure on the Shahid Rajaee special economic zone (which includes the Bandar Abbas port), which as Iran’s currently dominant port handles around 85 per cent of Iranian sea trade.

Chabahar plays a central role in two overland trade routes. Firstly, the Trilateral Transport and Transit Corridor (TTTC), which heads north through Afghanistan, and onward into Central Asia. However, the extremely poor security situation in Afghanistan, due to the territorial gains of the Taliban non-state armed group (NSAG) against the government, render this route inviable for the immediate future. Planned construction of regional railways to connect the Afghan capital Kabul with Iran have been repeatedly delayed, due to chronic corruption within Afghanistan itself and the practical difficulties of building infrastructure in such a high-threat environment.

Chabahar plays a central role in two overland trade routes

It is, instead, the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC), which uses Iranian infrastructure to pass into Azerbaijan, and through it to Russia and Europe, which is the more practical of the two potential routes. Both routes utilise a combination of road and rail to move overland freight. Iran is connected to Azerbaijan via rail, although cross-border travel involves a multi-gauge route. Road travel involves cutting through the country’s interior to Gürbulak in eastern Turkey, where onward freight utilises the E80 European route system.

SECURITY RISKS

Iran

Sistan-Baluchistan is one of the most unstable provinces in Iran, and there is an ongoing low-intensity conflict between Baloch-Sunni NSAGs and the Iranian security forces. The province has a large Sunni and ethnic Baloch population, and common grievances by NSAGs include perceptions of racial and religious discrimination by Iran’s theocratic Shia government. There are several operational NSAGs in the area, which often utilise the poor security environment of south-eastern Pakistan as a base.

The most significant of these are Jundallah and Jaish al-Adl, both of which have committed acts of political violence over the past five years. For example, Jaish al-Adl launched attacks against Iranian border units in October 2013 and 8 April 2015, which led to the deaths of 14 and eight guards, respectively. Jundallah, despite having its capability dramatically curtailed by the execution of its leader on 20 June 2010, claimed responsibility for an attack on a Shia mosque in Chabahar on 19 October 2012.  

None of the NSAGs operational in south-eastern Iran pose a systemic threat to the state. However, A2 assesses they possess the capability to launch kinetic assaults against port infrastructure and overland freight, particularly vehicles moving through more remote areas away from the principal urban centres.

Afghanistan

The Afghanistan portion of the TTTC is highly insecure. Travelling via Route 606, which connects Iran with Kabul, would involve transiting through Kandahar, a city which is under siege by the Taliban. Vehicles would be at severe risk, and substantial traffic via this route would be dependent either on a drastic improvement in Afghanistan’s security context, or a potentially unlawful agreement with the Taliban. A2 advises that companies avoid utilising TTTC until the situation stabilises. Any business that does use this route should invest heavily in defensive measures, such as the use of armoured cabs and cargo holds. A2 stresses that even substantial security measures are unlikely to deter attacks by Taliban operatives.

Assessment

Baloch NSAGs will continue to pose a threat to overland freight. However, their capability is limited, and the Iranian government will likely direct its security forces to take extensive action to secure the corridor as overland trade increases. Although Iran has not committed precise troop numbers, such as the 15,000 security personnel Pakistan has deployed to protect the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), it has the resources to mobilise substantial military assets to protect the port and the surrounding infrastructure. A2 therefore assesses that the risk will be manageable on the NSTC route, although operators should brief drivers on actions to take in the event of a kinetic incident, and high-profile or high-value cargo should be transported in secure vehicles.

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