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Game of Thrones in Central Asia
India and Iran vs. Pakistan and China?

Fresh off a big victory for his BJP party in Assam province, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Iran this week. While there, Reuters reports that he will commit India to helping Tehran construct and then operate a port on the Gulf of Oman:

Gopal Baglay, a foreign ministry official in charge of Iranian ties, said India would make an initial investment of more than $200 million in the port, of which India’s Exim Bank would provide a credit line of $150 million.

“The focus of the trip is connectivity and infrastructure,” he told reporters.

India is blocked from land access to Afghanistan and through it to the central Asia countries because of opposition from Pakistan, which sees India’s expansive diplomacy in the region as a threat.

Baglay said India, Afghanistan and Iran would separately sign an agreement to set up a trade and transport corridor during Modi’s trip that will have Chabahar as the hub.

The port will be constructed just sixty miles from where China is building massive shipping facilities for Pakistan. President Xi Jinping has made building trade ties with Central Asia a top priority—an effort New Delhi has been watching closely.

Chabahar, it seems, is at least in part India’s response to Beijing. India isn’t happy that China has been improving ties with Pakistan, and so Modi has been looking for an opportunity to cooperate with Iran on a parallel shipping contract. The international sanctions regime on Iran had posed a challenge to India’s plans. Now that it’s been mostly lifted as a result of Obama’s nuclear deal, New Delhi won’t have such a tough time doing business with Iran.

Both ports add (or perhaps just reflect) a dimension to the complicated Iran–Pakistan relationship. Pakistan is Sunni, and so many have expected it might ally with Saudi Arabia against Shiite Iran. Last month, it was looking clearer that this is what Pakistan’s generals want, particularly after the arrest in restive Balochistan of an Indian spy who the army alleged had spent time living in Iran. Civilian politicians, however, have resisted being pulled into an anti-Iran alliance, hoping to get favorable deals for Iranian oil.

Slowly but surely, we’re starting to see the contours of a new geopolitical reality take shape in Asia.

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