Uzbekistan will push ahead with a 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, senior Uzbek officials have said.

The three countries intend to hold the second meeting of a trilateral working group to discuss the joint use of Chabahar port on Iran’s Makran coast for trade and transit, Uzbekistan’s deputy foreign minister Furkat Sidikov said on the sidelines of a roundtable here on foreign policy issues. He indicated that the recent developments in Afghanistan would not have any impact on the plans of the three countries.

“India is one of our strategic partners and this is an important project,” Sidikov said. The first virtual meeting of the trilateral working group on the joint use of Chabahar port was held last December, and the three sides will set the date for the second meeting, he said.

Bakhtiyor Mustafayev, deputy director of the state-backed International Institute for Central Asia, said the government of landlocked Uzbekistan believes it is strategically important to diversify efforts to enhance access to the oceans.

Almost 80% of Uzbekistan’s exports and imports move through northern routes passing through Central Asian states and Russia and it would be beneficial for the country to gain access to the Persian Gulf, Mustafayev said. At the same time, the countries in South Asia are developing fast, and represent a huge market with a population of about two billion, he said.

“It would be more beneficial to try to combine South Asia and Central Asia,” Mustafayev said.

Enhanced connectivity, he said, would also “open new doors to improve the security situation and deal with terrorism and extremism” across the region.

The takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in mid-August has triggered speculation about the viability of Chabahar port. India developed the Shahid Beheshti terminal of Chabahar as part of its efforts to access Afghanistan while bypassing the territory of Pakistan. The US granted the port a special waiver from sanctions imposed on Iran in view of its strategic importance in shipping supplies to Afghanistan.

During a virtual summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 11 last year, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev – who is widely anticipated to retain his position in presidential elections held on Sunday – first proposed a trilateral dialogue between India, Iran and Uzbekistan to promote connectivity through Chabahar port.

The Indian side welcomed the proposal and responded with alacrity. The first meeting of the trilateral working group on the joint use of Chabahar was held just three days later on December 14, 2020.

During the virtual summit last year, India and Uzbekistan also reiterated their commitment to enhancing connectivity between the two countries and in the larger Central Asian region to bolster trade and investment. The Indian side had said at the time that Chabahar port could be “a fulcrum of connectivity to Central Asia”.

Speaking at the roundtable of foreign policy issues that was held on Saturday as part of the campaign for the presidential elections, Sidikov described the situation in Afghanistan as “difficult” but said that the country could not be isolated.

Uzbek foreign minister Abdulaziz Kamilov visited Kabul on October 7 for talks with the Taliban leadership, and Uzbek officials and Taliban representatives held a working meeting in the border city of Termez on October 16 to improve cross-border connectivity, especially for shipping humanitarian aid.

The Uzbek side is also interested in moving forward with a project to extend the existing railway line connecting Termez and Hairatan in Uzbekistan to Peshawar in Pakistan. The line currently terminates at Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. “This railway project is not related to governments and is for the benefit of the people… We have discussed the project with the provisional government of Afghanistan… We are ready to support such projects,” Sidikov told the roundtable.

People familiar with the matter said the thinking on the Uzbek side is that any isolation of Afghanistan could lead to an economic collapse and more chaos across the region.