- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

India, Iran and Afghanistan signed two memoranda of understanding early this month, including a deal to establish a trade and transport link between India and Afghanistan via Iran. For New Delhi, this might lay the groundwork for a broader regional transportation network in the future, but in the near term, it offers India the chance to strengthen its strategic position by tightening ties with nations surrounding Pakistan.
Government officials from the three countries met in Tehran, Iran's capital, Jan. 5 and signed two memoranda of understanding (MOUs) covering trade, transportation and other economic issues. Key among the deals was an agreement to open a transport corridor between India and Afghanistan via Iran's Chahbahar port.
As part of the arrangement, Tehran agreed to reduce by 90 percent taxes on all non-oil goods shipped from the port to Afghanistan, as well as to cut warehouse and portage fees by up to 50 percent.
While the deal is one element of Iranian-Indian cooperation in Afghanistan's economic reconstruction, it also might lay the groundwork for a north-south corridor that was proposed earlier. Such a link would connect India with Russia via Iran and the Caspian Sea, saving shipping time and costs.
But in the broader sense, the new shipping route to Afghanistan serves New Delhi's regional strategic goals, giving India greater access and stronger ties to nations such as Iran and Central Asian states that surround Pakistan.
In addition to reducing transport fees, Iran pledged to open land routes from Chahbahar to Zaranj and Delaram in western Afghanistan. New Delhi and Tehran also discussed expanding the trade routes, giving India access to Central Asia and the Caucasus via Iran.
For New Delhi, the MOUs and associated discussions serve two goals.
First, New Delhi has been looking to expand economic and political ties to its west, in the Middle East and on up to Russia. Officials in the past had floated an idea about the creation of a so-called north-south corridor, which would create a trade route from Bombay to Bandar-e-Abas in Iran, then by land through Iran to Bandar-e-Anzali on the Caspian. From there, the route would cross to Russia's Astrakhan region, and then by land to Moscow and points farther west.
While that route once seemed a distant hope, the current deal with Iran might breathe new life into the idea of a land and sea bridge to Russia that would be much shorter than the current sea paths to Europe. But more than brightening the prospects for expanded trade routes for Indian goods, the recent agreements aid another, broader goal of New Delhi: the encirclement and isolation of Pakistan.
India has worked hard to strengthen ties with Iran and the Central Asian states, particularly after the start of the U.S.-led war against terrorism. Stronger ties in Central Asia provide a buffer against China and help India further surround Pakistan. And ties with Iran offer India strategic options on Pakistan's western flank while opening the potential for new energy sources for India.
Ultimately, New Delhi's expanding economic ties slowly are facilitating India's underlying goal that of becoming a true regional power.
Rodger Baker is senior analyst at Stratfor.com. Reprinted with permission from Strategic Forecasting, LLC www.stratfor.com. Stratfor is a private intelligence provider of global analysis and forecasting.

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