Tensions between the United States and Iran have consistently escalated over the past few years, culminating in the American assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in January this year. However, a report from Al Jazeera on Saturday June 20th reveals that behind-the-scenes, Iran and the United States can cooperate for the improvement of the region. Chabahar Port, located in the Sistan-Balochistan province of Iran, had been exempt from U.S. sanctions for some time – the only entity of its kind in Iran to be in this position.
Chabahar’s exemption from ongoing sanctions is part of the American policy for South Asia. A spokesperson from the US State Department told Al Jazeera: “After extensive consideration, in November 2018 the administration granted a narrow exception […] to allow a limited number of activities that support the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan, a key US national security interest. The exception provided for the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan and allowed for the operation of Chabahar port in support of these goals.” The reconstruction of Afghanistan is seen as crucial to American success in the region, particularly as policymakers hope to establish a strong ally which will provide a counterbalance to Iran’s influence.
However, Chabahar Port and its exemption from sanctions reflects more than American willingness to re-develop Afghanistan. Chabahar is a unique piece in the geopolitical puzzle of the region. Currently, there are two major ports which the United States, India, and other regional allies can use to access the landlocked nation of Afghanistan: Chabahar Port, in Iran, and Gwadar Port, in Pakistan. Both ports are operated by American rivals – Chabahar by the Iranians, and Gwadar by the Chinese. In selecting Chabahar Port, the United States is making clear which rival it would rather work with. Mohammand-Hussein Ansarifard, a Tehran-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera that the port could lead to further cooperation between the US and Iran on other regional security issues: “Both now realise that the quarrel between the two countries weakens both of them and both are paying heavily for it.”
If the United States and Iran can cooperate on more issues, than the future of the region could look markedly different. Ansarifard told Al Jazeera that Iran’s influence cannot be ignored: “Iran can influence the whole security apparatus in the region. Iran’s influence for example in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, even in Yemen, is very, very big and very, I think, essential. […] So, if Iran does not collaborate with Americans […] then the problem in the region would be much more complicated and much more costly for the Americans. […] I think this is a very good reason to let Iran have the Chabahar [port].” Chabahar Port is but one example of what can happen when the two nations cooperate. In fact, both Iran and the United States have similar goals in the redevelopment of Afghanistan. Both nations desire the removal of US troops – albeit for different reasons – and both nations desire regional stability. Chabahar could be the first step to achieving this.
Ultimately, this should not be understood as a thawing of relations. The United States and Iran still have a long way to go to normalizing relations, and ongoing belligerence from both risks open hostilities. However, Chabahar shows us that this does not have to be the path forward.