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After three decades of effort, Iran bridges India’s outreach to Central Asia

Chabahar port

By Special Arrangement The first-ever India-Iran-Uzbekistan trilateral meeting on Monday is an important milestone, as it culminates South Block's herculean effort, lasting three decades, to develop communication routes to Central Asia.

Pakistan’s denial of transit for India to Afghanistan and Central Asia has severely hobbled its drive to transform the age-old ties of commerce and blood into an enduring relationship between nation states of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The trilateral itself is due to the era of video conferencing during the pandemic. Meetings such as this are more easily arranged, as they are devoid of the headaches of coordinating travel schedules.

The Secretary Deputy Minister-level trilateral was announced within 24 hours of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev making the proposal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their virtual summit on December 11. The discussions at the trilateral will revolve around the involvement of Uzbekistan in the joint management of the Iranian Chabahar port. Subsequent trilaterals may well see the next logical step of Tashkent considering involvement in a transportation link to the warm water port of Chabahar.

If there is a domino effect and more Central Asian states join-in, the problem of optimum usage facing all new communication arteries may be resolved to a certain extent. The challenges are intimidating. The current route from Termez to Chabahar is a daunting 30-hour journey over 2,000 km of rugged and, occasionally, hostile terrain. There will have to be intense negotiations with Afghanistan to ensure the economy in constructing communication arteries and seeking to involve more countries as customers and co-participants. India all through will remain an indispensable partner after losing several lives while constructing a vital road stretch from the Iran border to Afghanistan.

Those were the days when notorious drug smuggler Haji Juma Khan staged attacks on Indian as well as Iranian security officials. The US, at that time, would often turn down Indian requests for security despite having military bases at both end points of the road at Delaram and Zaranj, 220 km apart. Iran’s Mehmoudi Ahmedinejad and Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai had at that time bought into South Block’s long-term vision of a port managed by India, a free trade zone powered by Iranian gas and communication links independent of Pakistani highways and logistics companies, some controlled by ex Pakistan army personnel.

It is the shortest possible route from sea to western Afghanistan’s Pushtun, Hazara and Uzbek dominated areas and also can act as a catalyst to the underdeveloped and separatism-prone Sistan-Baluchistan province of Iran.

The two leaders stood by the Indian project. Tehran helped in sourcing construction material, often with great difficulty via unmade tracks in Iran. Karzai ensured that the security provided by ITBP to the Border Roads Organisation got a heavy outer layering of Afghan security personnel. Delaram, the end point of the Indian road (Route 606) in Afghanistan feeds into the Garland Highway that connects Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat and Kunduz, thus providing seamless distribution of 50,000 tonnes of India-donated wheat brought from India to all parts of the country.

Uzbekistan’s involvement could ensure that some of its mineral resources could be brought for processing and value addition at the Chabahar free trade zone for dispatch to markets in the Arab world, Africa and Europe. The world was anticipating the opening up of Uzbekistan once Mirziyoyev established complete control over the levers of power a year after taking over as President in 2016. It ended a different era of 25 years of rule by the Soviet-era First Secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party Islam Karimov.

Tashkent began exploring relationships beyond the tradition players Russia, Iran, China and Turkey once Mirziyoyev sacked the Islam Karimov-era Finance Minister Rustam Azimov in 2017. The US has responded to Tashkent’s readiness to participate in joint narcotic control efforts by taking Uzbekistan off the State Department’s 2020 list of Countries of Particular Concern. It is no coincidence that soon after, Mirziyoyev paid two visits to India. Responding to a personal invitation from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mirziyoyev’s second visit saw an important agreement that contributed to trust building.

The Department of Atomic Energy and Uzbekistan’s Novoi Minerals and Metallurgical Company signed a MoU on the long-term supply of uranium ore concentrate for India's energy requirements. India responded to the Uzbek gesture by seeking to meet its requirement of socio-economic development with a $ 200 million line of credit for housing and social infrastructure projects now known as High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDP), now steered by a separate department in the Ministry of External Affairs.

In the latest summit, India offered projects of a more ambitious sweep with a $ 448 million (over Rs. 3,500 crore) credit line for IT, sewage and road construction. As a measure of political trust, Uzbekistan supported the Indian position on Kashmir by dispatching its envoy for a Government tour of the Valley after the abolition of Article 370.

A new envoy Dilshod Akhatov was despatched in the middle of a pandemic to take over the embassy in Delhi in what appears to be Uzbekistan's most intense phase of engagement with India. Federal level ties were supplemented with links at the state level between businessmen, on the same lines as the Indian approach in the Russian Far East. Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani visited Uzbekistan’s Andijan region in October 2019, eliciting a follow up visit the next month.

23 agreements were signed and 59 projects worth nearly $ 1 billion were identified in several fields. One concrete area is the Uzbek-Indian Free Pharmaceutical Zone in Andijan region, near its border with Kyrgyzstan. Encouraged by the Andijan-Gujarat initiative, the Uzbek side is interested in expanding inter-regional cooperation between other regions of Uzbekistan and states of India.

The next pairing Uzbekistan has proposed is between Haryana and Fergana. Simultaneously, both sides have moved on to improving the defence and security vectors of bilateral ties. In a gesture of importance attached to the first-ever Indo-Uzbek Joint Exercise 'Dustlik-2019', Defence Minister Rajnath Singh attended the curtain raiser in Tashkent besides reviewing the training and capacity-building of Uzbek defence forces being carried out under the ITEC programme.

The India Room in the Uzbek Armed Forces Academy is already operational and India is now providing assistance in the development of an IT Room in the Academy. The influential Uzbek Interior Minister Lt. Gen (Retd.) Pulat Bobojonov paid a return visit during which he held discussions with Home Minister Amit Shah on the common dangers posed by radical Islamism. It emerged that there is no day light between India and Uzbekistan on the roots of terrorism.

Both Bobojonov and his predecessor and now the current head of Uzbekistan State Security Service Abusalom Azizov are clear about the dangers posed by extremist proselytizers of Wahabi ideology schooled by teachers of Pakistan-based `universities of jihad’, the Karachi-based Jamia Binoria Madrassa and Darul Uloom Haqqania of Akhora Khattak. This approach was reflected in the Modi-Mirziyoyev joint statement after the December 11 summit in which they “strongly condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations’’ and spoke of"destroying terrorist safe-havens, networks, infrastructure and funding channels".

It is on record that both India and Uzbekistan have been at the receiving end of terrorists sheltered in the safe havens of Pakistan. The trilateral should set the tone for a “Quad’’ comprising India-Iran-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan to closely coordinate their common security concerns, including about the Peace Talks with the Taliban, and promotion of manufacturing and commerce to end under development of several parts of the region.  .