|India to sign draft pact to develop Iran’s Chabahar port||
New Delhi (Livemint) — A draft of an agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan to develop Iran’s Chabahar port—aimed at giving India access to landlocked Afghanistan—is ready and could be signed soon, Afghan ambassador Shaida Abdali said.
During Hamid Karzai’s visit to India, which starts on Friday, the President of Afghanistan is expected to seek India’s backing for his decision to delay signing a bilateral security agreement clinched with the U.S. last month. The decision to delay signing the accord has caused a spike in tensions between Afghanistan and the U.S. The security agreement defines the legal conditions under which U.S. troops would remain in the insurgency-wracked country after most international troops exit in 2014.
Abdali was speaking to reporters ahead of Karzai’s visit, his 14th in 12 years. The timing of the trip is crucial—ahead of Afghan national polls scheduled for April and ahead of the withdrawal of U.S.-led international troops from the war torn country after a 13-year stay.
In his remarks, Abdali said the draft of the trilateral pact to develop Chabahar port on the Gulf of Oman, about 75 kms from Pakistan’s Chinese built deep-water Gwadar port, was ready and he was hopeful of the pact being signed soon.
India and Iran had agreed to look at developing the port in southeastern Iran in 2003, during a visit to India by the then Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, but the venture has not made much progress. Chabahar has been designated as a free trade and industrial zone by Tehran. Given India’s often hostile relations with Pakistan, India views the port as an alternative route not only to Afghanistan but also to the resource-rich landlocked countries of Central Asia.
Earlier this year, India committed $100 million to upgrading facilities at the port after spending $100 million on building a 220-km (140-mile) road in a dangerous stretch of western Afghanistan to link up with Chabahar. And with Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany last month clinching an interim agreement on capping Iran’s controversial nuclear program, India has decided to accelerate the venture.
The Chabahar port has the capacity to handle 2.5 million tons a year, which Iran would like to increase to 12.5 million tons. The Indian operators plan to set up a special mechanism to finance part of the port’s infrastructure and they want the Iranians to give it long-term rights to operate it. Besides Chabahar, discussions between Karzai and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are expected to cover the bilateral security agreement clinched last month and approved by a “Loya Jirga” or grand assembly of representatives of various ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
Karzai later refused to sign it before the 5 April Afghan general elections that is expected to see Karzai vacate the presidency. “If there is no peace, then this agreement will bring misfortune to Afghanistan,” Karzai was cited as saying by Reuters news agency. “Peace is our precondition. America should bring us peace and then we will sign it,” he said.
Abdali on Monday said there were two “major” issues holding up the pact - the first was the U.S. should ensure peace in Afghanistan and the second was that U.S. troops should stop house to house searches in Afghanistan that has riled and alienated the local population. An Afghan diplomat later explained that Karzai’s refusal to sign the security agreement should be seen in the context of him wanting the U.S. to bring pressure on Pakistan to bring the insurgent Taliban to the table for talks. The Afghans were also keen that the peace process should be “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned”, the diplomat said—indicating that Afghans would be uneasy with any bilateral pact struck between the U.S. and the Taliban or the Taliban and Pakistan.
Describing India-Afghan relations as exceptional, Abdali said Afghans would welcome Indians as trainers in the military schools. India was also welcome to help Afghanistan repair and upgrade Soviet era military hardware at facilities in Afghanistan.
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