The Telegraph
Tuesday , May 24 , 2016
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Open Sesame in Tehran

- India seals deals for access

Tehran, May 23: India today inked a slew of pacts with Iran and Afghanistan that could give New Delhi unprecedented access to these countries, Central Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe through a network of ports, rail lines and roads.

But it took a personal commitment on "early implementation" and a Persian Ghalib couplet from Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the stern Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to break into a smile after the two-hour-long negotiations.

The pacts, which revolve around the use of the southeastern Iran port of Chabahar as New Delhi's gateway into regions previously hard to reach, represent India's most ambitious overseas infrastructure initiative ever.

The agreements signed include a commercial contract to develop Chabahar port, a pact to connect it to Zahedan on Iran's border with Afghanistan and Pakistan through a railway line and a transit agreement to transport goods into Afghanistan.

Overseen by Modi and Rouhani, Indian and Iranian officials also signed a separate agreement under which New Delhi committed a $150-million soft loan to Tehran, apart from a promised investment of $85 million under the Chabahar commercial contract.

The loan, too, is aimed at developing Chabahar, which, along with the sister pacts inked today, will allow India to bypass Pakistan while enhancing trade with partners in the region.

Modi went beyond the agreements and said India would consider investments of up to $500 million in the Chabahar port development project. A separate agreement committed Nalco, the state-run aluminium firm, to building a smelter in the Chabahar Free Trade Zone. India inked 13 pacts in all.

But Modi appeared aware of the caution with which Indian promises are taken in Tehran after frequent past delays, when he turned to Persian to deliver a message of urgency.

" Janoonat garbe naphse khud tamam asth, je Kashi pe ba Kashan Neem Gaam Asth," Modi read out from a prepared text at the Sa'dabad Presidential Palace before translating it himself. "It means: Once we make up our mind, the distance between Kashi (Varanasi, the Prime Minister's constituency) and Kashan (a major Iranian city) is only half a step."

As Rouhani's face broke into a smile, his foreign minister Javad Zarif - a national hero here for leading the negotiations that ended nuclear sanctions - chuckled and poked another colleague in amusement as they stood behind the Iranian President.

A little more than two hours earlier, Modi had driven through the lush gardens of the palace complex to a guard of honour, practised on a loop by Iranian soldiers. It was an entry Iran hoped Modi would make months earlier, after the US and the European Union lifted sanctions linked to Tehran's nuclear programme in January. Instead, a range of world leaders from countries big and small have beaten Modi to Tehranfor meetings with Rouhani and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who the Indian Prime Minister called on just before flying back late evening.

Rouhani referred to India as an "old friend" and Modi emphasised that the " dosti" between the nations in not new. The Indian Prime Minister recalled Iran's assistance after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, and said India was "proud" of standing by Iran in its difficult times.

But if he was referring to the recently removed sanctions, the Indian Prime Minister had misread Tehran's mood.

Rouhani made it clear that it was the lifting of sanctions that had "created the right environment" for an elevation of ties. India's commitments on investments in Chabahar "could" emerge a "symbol" of the bilateral partnership, his words reflecting Iran's tempered expectations from a project first discussed in 2001.

The commercial contract signed today includes a commitment from India to deliver the soft loan in four months and to develop two terminals and five berths in 18 months. Cargo is to be shipped out from the start of the third year of the contract - the volume will start at 30,000 containers of 20 feet length to start with, and go up to 275,000 such containers by 2026, according to the contract. The two countries will share the customs revenue and Iran will retain the infrastructure after the contract concludes.

The strict timelines appear aimed at winning Iran's trust in India's commitment.

"We are committed to taking steps for the early implementation of these agreements," Modi said, referring to the Chabahar-related pacts.

Iran's push for early progress in all the Chabahar-related pacts was also evident in Rouhani's comments later in the afternoon, when he joined Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who flew in today, in applauding the signing of the transit pact.

The Iranian leader emphasised the significance of the pact, called the "Chabahar Agreement", which he said had shown the region that cooperation lone was the path to the future. "Today will be known as Chabahar Day," he said.

He said the three leaders in discussions today afternoon had agreed to appoint senior ministers to regularly meet and follow up on the progress in implementing the transit agreement. Modi has appointed transport minister Nitin Gadkari, who signed the transit pact on India's behalf, as his points-person for the agreement.

Ghani referred to the land-locked nature of Afghanistan that has limited its trade with a giant neighbour like India - because Pakistan refuses to allow a trilateral transit pact between New Delhi, Islamabad and Kabul.

"Geography is not our will," Ghani said. "But we can change geography with our will."

Modi said the transit pact was historic not just for India, Iran and Afghanistan, but for the region.

But he also deftly nudged Rouhani and Ghani to avoid judging India by its record in delivering on commitments.

"Today we bid to write a new chapter in our relationship," the Indian Prime Minister said. "This (transit) agreement can change the course of history."

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