IMPLICATIONS: The Iranian leadership is ardently and promptly working on the construction of the Chabahar port, which they see as an instrument in their policy to escape international isolation. Work is also swiftly underway for the construction of the Iran-Afghanistan transit highway. The third phase of the construction of this Transit Highway began on July 14, 2003. The estimated cost of the project’s third phase is 43 billion Iranian riyals and it is likely to be completed by March 2004. In this phase, 15 km of highway will be built, connecting Zahak district to the border post and onwards to the silk bridge being constructed over the Paryan river which serves as a natural border between Iran and Afghanistan. It has also been noted by observers that an estimated 60 per cent of construction work on the silk bridge has been completed. The main hurdle in the early completion of the highway is the bridge on the river Pyanj at Bandar Sher Khan on the Tajik-Afghan border. Interestingly, the US government is financing $21 million for the construction of this bridge. The three parties, Iran, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, have also recently signed the Anzob tunnel project agreement. This is a significant development, as this tunnel would provide safe and uninterrupted road access to the Chabahar port from Tajikistan. Iran has also agreed to provide Tajikistan a grant of $ 10 million for the speedy completion of the project. According to media reports, Iran has also decided to extend a $21 million credit to Tajikistan for developing its transportation and road sector. The development of two competing seaports as the gateway to central Asia is not bad, especially for the Central Asian states. However, if the parties try to compete and undercut each other, these projects could turn into another regional tussle. Instead of going solo, both Islamabad and Tehran may still explore ways to work together on the issue. The need of the hour is that Islamabad and Tehran have a joint approach on these projects instead of competing with each other. Tehran may not be able to win many friends in the region and thus may not be able to get rid of its isolation. Pakistan also feels a need to take measures to restore mutual trust with Iran. Especially now that the Taliban factor is gone, the endless competition is no longer necessary. Once this is done, there is no reason for not carrying forward the respective infrastructural initiative of Iran and Pakistan in mutually advantageous complementarity to each other. The initiative for developing the new Persian Gulf port of Chabahar can quite conveniently be linked up with the fast-developing Gwadar port.
CONCLUSIONS: The Pakistan-China joint venture to build a deep-sea port at Gwadar will be completed by March 2005, while Iran is working frenetically to complete its rival port, intended to channel trade from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan intended for the East and the Gulf, via Chabahar to India. Working in competition, these two projects will keep fueling the Iran-Pakistan rivalry, while this is not in the interest of either state, both of which face enough problems on other fronts and would be well-served by deepening the process of normalization in relations that has been initiated. A positive outcome of these two apparently rival projects would be to find mutual advantages and build them in complementarity to each other. The two projects can easily be linked with one another, and server different sectors or markets, reducing competitions but also reducing expensive duplication. This, if ever done, will dramatically transform the geostrategic landscape of the region. AUTHOR’S BIO: Rizwan Zeb is an Islamabad based security Analyst and Mahbub-ul-Haq Fellow with the Regional Center for Strategic Studies, Colombo, Sri Lanka. He is currently working on a book on Pakistan-Central Asian relations.