EghtesadOnline: Iran, located geographically at the crossroads of East and West, has been making efforts for years to build up its rail connections to neighboring countries, or build new railroads to complete its transit routes along the ancient Silk Road.
The country’s three options that can provide the missing East-West missing links are Iran-Turkey (Razi-Van), Iran-Russia (via Caucasia) and Iran-Iraq-Syria. Each of these routes has its own problems to overcome before trains can roll across them, traversing numerous international borders along the fastest, most cost-effective corridor linking China to Europe and the Americas.
Ali Ziyaei, a transportation expert, told Fars News Agency that for decades, Turkey has stamped out Iran’s plans to create a transit route passing through its territory.
Turkey Looking to Skirt Iran
Iran has expanded its railroad to reach Razi border crossing in West Azarbaijan Province called Kapikoy on the Turkish side.
Turkey has constructed a railroad from the border to the eastern shores of Lake Van but refuses to connect it further to its national railroad network, creating a missing link in the corridor.
This, said Ziyaei, seems to be intentional, since Turkey’s national railroad stretches as far as the western coasts of Lake Van, and a 238-kilometer-long gap has remained idle for some 40 years.
“In the year 2000, it was estimated that constructing a 238-km rail route will cost around $418 million. Over the last 40 years, Iran has asked the Turkish government on many occasions in bilateral meetings to consider building this railroad only to face a closed door,” he said.
“The Iranian government has even suggested several times to finance such a project, but Ankara turned down the offer every time. This is while a connection between Iran and Turkey’s railroads can greatly benefit the latter as well and it can attract unprecedented volumes of transit consignments.”
Turkey’s location on the world map is strategic transportation-wise, making it one of the main thresholds between East and West. The country is in competition with Russia to become the top regional transportation hub. In this respect, Ankara, along with some other regional countries, including Azerbaijan, have been trying to omit Iran from transit corridors by investing on parallel routes that circumnavigate Iran, including the Trans-Caspian international and Lapis Lazuli transportation corridors.
The Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, known as the Middle Corridor, is a multilateral institutional development linking containerized rail freight transport networks of China and the European Union through the economies of Central Asia, the Caucasus, Turkey and Eastern Europe.
The multimodal transport institution links Caspian and Black Sea ferry terminals with rail systems in China, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Ukraine and Poland.
Lapis Lazuli is an international transit route opened in 2018, linking Afghanistan to Turkey via Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
According to the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, 80% of goods shipped from South Asia to Europe will travel by this route (by rail in Afghanistan as well as the countries of the South Caucasus and by ship when crossing the Caspian and Black seas).
Furthermore, the planned Lapis Lazuli corridor aims to make Afghanistan less dependent on Pakistan's Karachi Port for its exports.
“These alternatives make a detour around Iran, pass through many countries as well as the Caspian Sea. This means cargo transportation will take much longer and impose heavier costs on their owners. Given Turkey’s policies in refusing to provide connectivity between Iran and Europe, Tehran should dawdle no more and carry on with its own alternative plans,” Ziyaei said.
Railroads to Russia, Iraq
Ziyaei said Iran’s alternative routes are Caucasia-Russia and Iraq-Mediterranean Sea, adding that the first includes a railroad passing through East Azarbaijn Province’s Jolfa County, enters the city of Nakhchivan in Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, Armenia and then either Georgia or Azerbaijan and finally Russia and Europe.
“This railroad was built many years ago and before the collapse of the Soviet Union some 4 million tons of commodities used to be transported from Jolfa to the USSR. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nakhchivan’s railroad to Armenia was blocked and due to political conflicts was never reopened,” he added.
The one remaining option that seems more feasible than the other two, according to Ziyaei, is the corridor passing through Iraq, to Syria and Lebanon, leading to the Mediterranean Sea, again providing Iran with access to Europe, North Africa and the Americas ultimately.
“The reason this corridor has not yet been launched is Iraq’s internal rules that do not allow transit goods to make their way to destinations through its territory. Although recently the Iraqi government has approved transit through its borders, it has yet to be implemented.
Here, the first step after the new regulation comes into effect is to build rail routes from scratch between Iran and Iraq, and then from Iraq to Syria. The most important projects that need to be completed include a railroad from Shalamcheh in Iran’s southern province of Khuzestan to Basra, Iraq’s main port city, and another one from Khosravi border crossing in the western Kermanshah Province to Khanaqin in Iraq’s Diyala Governorate,” the expert added.
“The first project requires a 32-kilometer railroad and a moveable bridge over the Arvandroud river. Initial steps have been taken to start the project by the two neighbors. The second project is more significant and would be the main rail connection between Tehran and Baghdad.”
“On June 21, 2021, construction work on the Iranian side of Shalamcheh-Basra railroad began on the orders of former president, Hassan Rouhani,” former secretary of the High Council of Free Trade Zones told Mehr News Agency.
“Construction is taking place in Arvand Free Trade and Industrial Zone in the southern Khuzestan Province,” Hamidreza Momeni said.
Deputy Minister of Roads and Urban Development Kheirollah Khademi has said that the construction of the 32-kilometer-long Shalamcheh-Basra railroad will be using Iranian private sector investments.
Back in May 2021, former deputy minister of roads and urban development in planning and resource management affairs, Mahmoud Ghaffari, said investments of up to €100 million are required to carry out and complete the project.
The Iraqi side failed to build the railroad from Shalamcheh to Basra due to economic problems and shortage of funds.
In order to complete the Shalamcheh-Basra railroad, the 17-kilometer Khorramshahr-Shalamcheh railroad was completed in 2011. With the start of the first tenure of Iran’s Hassan Rouhani as president, the completion of Shalamcheh railroad to Basra was seriously considered by the government to facilitate the travel of Iranian pilgrims, especially during the Arbaeen pilgrimage season so that travelers could use this rail link from Iran via Basra to visit Karbala and other holy cities of Iraq.
“Experts consider Shalamcheh-Basra railroad to be the most practical, if we want a connection route within the next few years,” the expert said.
Ziyaei concluded that the completion of an East-West transportation corridor that passes through Iran needs to move up on the government’s agenda and assume top priority.