By Bahattin Gonultas and Fatih Erkan Dogan
TEHRAN (AA) - India and Iran signed a deal on Monday to develop the first phase of Iran's strategic Chabahar Port, which is expected to aid India's fast-growing economy by establishing a sea-land access route to Afghanistan that bypasses Pakistan.
"The bilateral agreement to develop the Chabahar Port and related infrastructure is an important milestone," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, currently on an official visit to Iran, said.
Modi went on to note that India would provide $500 million for the port’s development.
"This major effort will boost economic growth in the region," he asserted.
Via the strategic port, India hopes to eventually import gas from Central Asia.
Located outside the Persian Gulf, Chabahar Port will make it easier for India to access markets as far afield as the Central Asian republics, according to experts.
Since 2003, the three countries involved -- Afghanistan, Iran and India -- have engaged in protracted talks over the project.
Negotiations were reinvigorated in January after western states lifted longstanding sanctions on Tehran in the wake of last year’s landmark nuclear deal.
"The issue is closely related to the Chabahar and Gwader ports, which are located in Iran's southeast and the Makran coast of Balochistan in southwestern Pakistan," Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi, an expert on Indian affairs, told Anadolu Agency.
Mollazehi said the recent arrival of China to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port with a view to securing energy had prompted India -- which has issues with both Pakistan and China -- to focus on Chabahar.
"The security of this region is extremely important for China," Mollazehi said. "Because of this, China came to Gwadar and made a deal with Pakistan and made investments."
"These investments also include the notion of establishing a [Chinese] naval base in coming years," he added. "This endangers India’s long-term interests."
According to Mollazehi, India is planning some $20 billion worth of long-term investments in Chabahar.
Bahram Amir-Ahmadian, a professor at Tehran University, noted that the total cargo capacity of Chabahar Port will eventually stand at some 80 million tons.
"A railway and transit road from Chabahar to Mashad is also being considered," he said, "while a Mashad-Afghanistan connection will also be established."
"The motive behind Afghanistan’s choosing the Iran route -- even though it’s easier to access international waters through Pakistan -- is the conflict between the two states [i.e., Afghanistan and Pakistan]," Amir-Ahmadian asserted.
Pointing to Modi's current visit to Iran, Amir-Ahmadian said: "Relations between the two countries have always been good. Even during the sanctions era, Iran sold gas to India."
"India needs this energy," he added. "What’s more, oil refineries established in India are compatible with the chemistry of Iranian oil, making India an ideal purchaser of Iranian oil."
Along with the port investment deal, India and Iran signed another 11 agreements in the aerospace, biotechnology, nanotechnology and counter-terrorism fields.