The International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), the shortest and arguably most secure trade route between India and Europe, passes through just three countries – Russia, Iran, and India. According to media reports over the past week, a trial load on the INSTC was dispatched on 11 June from St. Petersburg on Russia’s Baltic Coast bound for the Nhava Sheva Container Terminal in Mumbai. The transit is expected to be completed in 24 days, a saving of over two weeks travel time when compared to the 40 days needed for the Red Sea route.
After the commissioning of the trans-Iranian railway due next year,the Russia-Iran India trade route will be even quicker. In fact, insiders believe the INSTC – and not the row over remarks on the Prophet Mohammad by a ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson which the media fed off – was a key area of focus during Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian’s three-day visit to India last week. The Ministry of External Affairs Press release issued at the conclusion of the visit, commentators have pointed out, made a specific reference to the “boosting of regional connectivity through Iran”. The trial run of the INSTC is suffused with symbolism, strategic implications, and the potential for seminal geopolitical realignment.
It would, as and when it comes to fruition, establish a new, cost competitive trade route across Eurasia making it a competitor to China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI), especially as goods which land in Mumbai can be sent further East via the land bridge to the Chennai port and from there on to Southeast/East Asia and Australasia. Experts say Tehran, which is still battling sanctions imposed by the America-led West over its nuclear programme, has added incentive to double down on making this trade corridor work as a means to getting its economy back on track while Moscow has been pushing for it from long before the Ukraine war broke out because a powerful lobby in the Kremlin is wary of putting all its eggs in Beijing’s basket, as it were.
The dangers of third-party interference in the operation of the INSTC are minimal. The Russia-Iran leg of the trade route passes through the Caspian Sea region which falls under Russia’s sphere of influence and the global shipping lines between Iran and India are unlikely to be interfered with by Washington which itself is trying to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal and prefers India’s non-hegemonic rise to China’s aggressive expansionism.
This is not to suggest the Americans will be particularly happy with the operationalising of the INSTC or will not push back against it; it would, after all, undermine the West’s efforts to isolate both Russia and Iran. But the thing about living in a multipolar world in geopolitical flux, as Washington knows all too well, is that on occasion one’s allies’ interests will not be in sync with one’s own.