by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
On December 6, Iran’s Chabahar port was the target of a terrorist attack when a vehicle laden with explosives was detonated in front of a police station, killing two and injuring more than 30 civilians. Although no one has so far claimed responsibility, Iranian officials strongly suspect the Pakistan-based Ansar al-Furqan. This Sunni Baloch militant group has carried out attacks before in Iran’s southeast province of Sistan and Beluchistan, which has a sizable Sunni minority in the predominantly Shiite Iran. Iran’s intelligence minister has pinned the ultimate blame on “regional sponsors of terrorism and spy services.”
As expected, the terrorist attack has fueled an Iranian suspicion that it is part of a foreign-orchestrated plan to foment instability inside Iran. Some pundits have tried to connect the dots between the attack and the U.S. sanctions exemptions for India’s investment in Chabahar, the trilateral efforts of Iran-India-Afghanistan centered on the port, and the India-Pakistan rivalry around Afghanistan. Sensing a brewing conspiracy to derail his country’s plan to use Chabahar port to connect India to Afghanistan and Central Asia, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has strongly condemned the attack. U.S. officials, meanwhile, have opted for (meaningful) silence.
Chabahar is, indeed, where U.S. strategies toward Iran and South Asia clash. Washington is pushing for instability in Iran but stability for South Asia more generally, with India as a valuable partner. Oddly, some officials in the Trump administration believe it’s possible to enlist Iran’s cooperation for their South Asia strategy even as they continue to promote regime change in the Islamic Republic. Given this incoherence, neither strategy has much chance of success.
The Trump administration has wisely opted to exempt Chabahar from its secondary sanctions on countries doing business with Iran because not to have done so would have adversely affected India. It would also have hurt Afghanistan, which needs to boost its import routes in order to lessen its dependence on Pakistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has taken credit for convincing the White House to exempt Chabahar, which the administration finally granted in part as a symbolic gesture to give India a larger role in Afghanistan—much to the chagrin of Pakistan, which has fallen out of favor with the Trump administration.
The Chabahar exemption, together with the oil exemptions for eight nations that receive the bulk of Iran’s oil including India, China, and Turkey, doesn’t match up with the Trump administration’s stated policy of “maximum economic pressure” to “cripple” the Iranian economy. In addition to being a source of revenue for Iran given the millions of dollars India is paying to use the port’s berths, Chabahar has the potential, as a free-trade zone, to attract foreign investment and become a regional hub, particularly for the land-locked Central Asian states. Over time, it can be linked to the parallel north-south corridor that Russia, Iran, and India are creating to expand regional connectivity. Had Trump opted to include Chabahar in its long list of Iran sanctions, then it would have alienated not only Iran, India, and Afghanistan but also Tajikistan and other Central Asian states.
The Chabahar exemption is thus a product of pragmatic realism, similar to the oil exemptions, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explicitly linked to the U.S. desire to avoid rising oil prices. The same logic should prevail once the 180-day exemptions are up for renewal in April 2019, barring unforeseen developments.
Still, since the Chabahar project allows Iran to some extent to dodge the bullet of U.S. sanctions, the exemption has generated some ambivalence in the Trump administration. National Security Advisor John Bolton, who was adamant about not allowing anyone to evade sanctions, was reportedly opposed to the Chabahar exemption and may now seek a back door to undermine it. The United States is already unhappy with India for its multi-billion dollar purchase agreement for Russia’s S-400 air defense system. The Chababar project is already in limbo, given India’s unfulfilled promises investment and associated development, which it has blamed on sanctions-based banking restrictions on doing business with Iran. India, for instance, has committed on paper to construct a railway line linking Chabahar with Zahedan on the Iran-Afghanistan border, but this project hasn’t yet materialized.
The terrorist attack on Chabahar may have been calculated to sow further seeds of doubt about these projects by inflicting some economic damage and unsettling the Indian government in particular. Indeed, this attack has already unnerved Iranian, Indian, and Afghan officials, who have pinned their hopes on a regional push for development through the Chabahar project. Iran has already signaled to India that it will approach China to fill the vacuum in Chabahar if New Delhi fails to live up to its commitments. Since India considers Chabahar a strategic response to China’s development of the Gwadar port in Pakistan, that would be a major setback.
According to a Tehran foreign policy expert who wishes to remain anonymous, the United States may already have second thoughts about the Chabahar exemption and has decided to “take with one hand what it offers with the other hand.” In 2010, Iranian authorities officials arrested the Jundallah terrorist leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, after he reportedly visited a U.S. military base—so Tehran remains suspicious that the United States and its regional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia are causing mischief through their proxies. The anti-Iran rhetoric of the Trump administration certainly fuels such conspiracy theories.
Although the real culprits behind the Chabahar attack and their intentions may never be known, Chabahar remains at the intersection of competing U.S. strategic interests that involve a maximalist anti-Iran strategy and a more moderate approach to South Asia. Perhaps the Trump administration has unwittingly set itself up for failure on both fronts. In any case, a U.S. policy that acknowledges the non-zero-sum nature of U.S.-Iran competition in their zone of overlapping interests would be considerably more prudent.
Kaveh Afrasiabi has taught at Tehran University and Boston University and is a former consultant to the UN Program on Dialogue Among Civilizations. He is the author of several books on Iran, Islam, and the Middle East, most recently Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (2018) and the co-author of the forthcoming Trump and Iran: Containment to Confrontation.