Iran: A Pivotal Component of Important Connectivity Initiatives

The revival of the Iran nuclear deal/JCPOA seems to be an uphill task. The Vienna talks between Iran and other signatories to the Iran nuclear deal which began in November, after a gap of five months, will resume on Dec. 27, 2021. In the current situation, the prospects of an agreement which will be acceptable to both Iran and other signatories – specifically US, UK, Germany and France — seem dim. 

US special envoy for Iran, Rob Malley recently said that if the current negotiations fail, they would be headed towards a crisis. Malley further stated “At some point in a not-so-distant future we will have to conclude the JCPOA is no more and we would have to negotiate a wholly different deal and we would go through a period of escalating crisis.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview with CNN also made the point that while the US did not want to set any definitive deadline for the talks, time was of essence and that if Iran was not serious about meeting the conditions of the 2015 deal, the US would need to explore other options. 

The Joe Biden administration along with E3 countries (UK, Germany and France) wants Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement, while Iran according to Western countries has increased its level of uranium enrichment way beyond that required for civil nuclear capability. 

While Iran’s ties with the West, especially the US – may be strained and the country’s economy is in doldrums, its geographical location makes it pivotal for connectivity initiatives pertaining to the Middle East, South Asia, Afghanistan and Central Asia. 

Iran and connectivity in the Middle East

If one were to examine the role of Iran as a gateway within the Middle East, a transit corridor connecting UAE and Turkey passing through Iran was inaugurated in November 2021. Prior to this, exports from Sharjah Port to Mersin Port in Turkey took 20 days. The corridor is also important because given the changing geopolitics of the Middle East, Iran-UAE and Turkey-UAE are seeking to improve relations, this trilateral connectivity initiative is an important step in that direction.

Iran’s relevance for connectivity between South Asia and other regions

 Iran’s importance in the context of connectivity between South Asia and other regions is reiterated by a number of points. Firstly, on Dec. 21, 2021 a freight train corridor between Islamabad, Tehran and Istanbul was relaunched. The Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul train, referred to as ITI train, was begun in 2009 under the umbrella of Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) but had been suspended in 2011.

Second, Iran which signed a 25-year cooperation agreement with China in March 2021 — has also stated that it will be joining the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

During the 3rd meeting of the India-Central Asia dialogue (held on December 19, 2021) not only was the security situation in Afghanistan, and the dire need for humanitarian assistance to the country highlighted, but the relevance of the Chabahar Port in the context of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) which seeks to connect India to Russia — was also underscored. India has been handling operations of phase 1 of the Shahid Beheshti Terminal,  since 2018 (during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Iran in 2016 an agreement had been signed to promote India-Iran-Afghanistan connectivity via Chabahar). 

A joint statement issued at the end of the India-Central Asia dialogue stated: “India welcomed the interest of Central Asian countries to utilize the services of Shahid Beheshti Terminal at Chabahar Port for facilitating their trade with India and beyond.”

While US ties with Iran have not witnessed any qualitative change under Joe Biden’s presidency, New Delhi has been giving greater attention to the Chabahar Project in recent times, and also engaging proactively with Iran in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

There is no doubt that a revival of the JCPOA would benefit many countries in terms of their economic linkages with Iran as well as connectivity projects. It remains to be seen how connectivity initiatives would be impacted in case the current set of negotiations pertaining to JCPOA do not succeed and the acrimony between Iran and the West escalates. Countries like UAE and India which share close ties with the US, but also have robust economic ties with Iran would be closely watching the deliberations and hoping that they are successful. As mentioned earlier, Iran by virtue of its geographical location is important as a fulcrum of numerous connectivity initiatives – apart from being an important source of oil for many countries. The US and E3 countries need to bear in mind that even if they try to arm twist Tehran, its location will stand it in good stead.

The review and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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