U.S. President Barack Obama has often spoken of the ever-tightening ring of sanctions against Iran. The hope is that the sanctions will eventually bring the Islamic Republic to the bargaining table, if not to its knees. The effort, however, would be more effective if these sanctions did not go hand in hand with a longstanding and lucrative annual bonus to Iran from Washington. That's right: The United States is effectively funding its adversary.
This bonus takes the form of a subsidy that arises from the United States and NATO's tacit support for Iran's ports on the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. The United States has largely failed to open any alternative route connecting Afghanistan and the great sea lanes that traverse the Arabian Sea, or between Afghanistan's northern neighbors in Central Asia and those same warm-water corridors of trade. Thanks to this failure, shippers from China, Russia, India, and Europe have no alternative but to use the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, from which some 90 million tons of goods annually are transported by rail to Turkey, the Mediterranean world, Europe, and Russia. Business at that old entrepôt on the Persian Gulf has boomed to such an extent that Iran, with help from India and Russia, has built an even more convenient port and free trade zone on the Gulf of Oman, at the city of Chabahar, from which goods will proceed overland by road and rail to Afghanistan.
Many goods from Afghanistan and further north traverse Afghanistan to get to the Iranian ports, deepening Afghanistan's dependence on Iran. Meanwhile, new rail routes that run northward from Chabahar across Iran will cause most cargo shipped by land from India to bypass Afghanistan entirely on its way to Central Asia, Russia, or Europe. Again, Iran wins, while Afghanistan and the United States lose. For a full decade, the United States has turned a blind eye to this bizarre situation.
This is not for lack of a viable alternative. The Pakistani port of Karachi and its newer rival, the new port of Gwadar, less that 125 miles east of Chabahar, both feed directly to Afghanistan. Both provide a shorter and more effective land link between India and Southeast Asia, on the one hand, and Europe, the Mediterranean, and Russia, on the other. Karachi and its ports are directly connected by road and railroad to routes that traverse Afghanistan. Up until now, Gwadar has lacked facilities to handle large-scale shipments and been plagued by silting, but the Chinese firm that took over its development and management last week promises to address these shortcomings promptly.
These ports present the United States with a potential win-win situation: Using them would weaken Iran, while simultaneously boosting America's Afghan partners. Instead of subsidizing Iran, these ports could put substantial sums into Kabul's coffers in the form of tariffs and duties. The land routes across Afghanistan from Pakistan could also create thousands of jobs for Afghans in such fields as freight forwarding, storage, logistics, insurance, and transport services.
But the United States has failed to push for the opening of these natural land routes from the Arabian Sea to the north across Afghanistan. True, it provided solid support during the preparation of the Afghanistan Pakistan Transport and Trade Agreement, which goes far toward resolving the problems that have kept these land routes blocked. But this pact remains a dead letter, largely due to half-hearted and ineffective advocacy from Washington since the treaty was signed.