Uzbekistan says it plans to hold the second trilateral meeting with Iran and India to discuss the joint use of Chabahar port on Iran's Makran coast for trade and transit.
The first virtual meeting of the trilateral working group was held last December. The three sides will set the date for the second meeting, Uzbekistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Furkat Sidikov has said on the sidelines of a roundtable on foreign policy issues in Tashkent.
Senior officials have said Uzbekistan will push ahead with the joint plan with India and Iran to promote connectivity through the Chabahar port, as part of the country’s efforts to improve and diversify access to sea routes for trade.
Sidikov indicated that the recent developments in Afghanistan would not have any impact on the plans of the three countries.
According to deputy director of the state-backed International Institute for Central Asia Bakhtiyor Mustafayev, the government of landlocked Uzbekistan believes it is strategically important to diversify efforts to enhance access to the oceans.
He said given that almost 80% of Uzbekistan’s exports and imports move through northern routes passing through Central Asian states and Russia, it would be beneficial for the country to gain access to the Persian Gulf.
Moreover, the countries in South Asia are developing fast, and represent a huge market with a population of about two billion, he added.
“It would be more beneficial to try to combine South Asia and Central Asia,” Mustafayev said in remarks published by New Delhi-based English-language daily Hindustan Times.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who retained his position in presidential elections held on Sunday, first proposed a trilateral dialogue between India, Iran and Uzbekistan to promote connectivity through Chabahar port and the first meeting was held just three days later on December 14, 2020.
The Indian side said at the time that Chabahar port could be “a fulcrum of connectivity to Central Asia”.
India has been developing a part of Chabahar on Iran’s southeastern coast along the Gulf of Oman in order to expand trade with Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asian nations.
Under a trilateral contract signed with Iran and Afghanistan in May 2016, India is developing two berths at the Shahid Beheshti port of Chabahar with a total capital investment of $85 million and will operate them on a 10-year lease.
Recently, New Delhi has proposed that Chabahar be included in the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC), connecting Mumbai to Moscow through Iran.
The 7,200-km multimode route was proposed by Russia, Iran and India in 2000, before being joined by 10 Central Asian countries. It envisages a network of ship, rail and road for freight transport that will cut carriage costs by about 30-60% and transit time from 40 days to about 20 days.
Last December, an Iranian goods train carrying tonnes of agricultural products chugged into the western Afghan province of Herat as the two countries marked the opening of their first shared railway network.
The train route so far links the Iranian city of Khaf with the Afghan town of Rozanak about 150 kilometres away, but is scheduled to be expanded to reach Herat, Afghanistan's third largest city.
The project has been billed a gateway to Europe for Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries.
Once completed, the 225 kilometer network would help transport six million tonnes of goods and a million passengers annually. The Khaf-Herat network would later be connected to Central Asian and Chinese rail networks.
Landlocked countries have always tried to access open seas. Afghanistan’s neighbors have indicated an interest in linking with the Khaf-Herat railway line to send cargoes to and from Iran’s Persian Gulf ports.
Efforts to rebuild roads and railway networks have always been a top priority of the Afghan government and the donor community despite the worsening security situation.
Afghanistan's new rulers under the leadership of the Taliban have stressed their desire to maintain trade and transit relations with neighbors, but the regional countries are treating them with care and caution.
Uzbekistan and Afghanistan have signed an agreement to extend a railroad connecting the two countries to eventually give Uzbekistan a direct link to sea ports. Tashkent is interested in extending that line to Herat for a gateway to Iran.
Tajikistan also wants to construct a railway through Afghanistan to Iran and build an “energy line” across the three countries to supply Iranian oil products and gas, as well as to link the electricity grids of the three countries.