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From the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean: Iran's geopolitical expansion with a railway plan

From the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean: Iran's geopolitical expansion with a railway plan

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Politics History

Tuesday 18 July 202304:23 pm
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سكة شلمجة-البصرة... هكذا تخطط إيران لتأمين وصولها إلى شواطئ المتوسط

After the signing of the Shalamcheh-Basra railway agreement in December 2021, Iraq and Iran agreed in early April that Iran will be responsible for clearing landmines and constructing a 32-kilometer railway line, while Iraq will handle the construction of stations and buildings. Additionally, Iranian companies will build a one-kilometer vertical bridge over the Shatt al-Arab river, as reported by the Iranian Mehr News Agency.

Negotiations for the Basra-Shalamcheh railway have been ongoing between the two countries for the past two decades. According to the 2014 memorandum of understanding between the two countries, Iran will build a bridge over the Arvand River (also known as Shatt al-Arab) while Iraq will extend the railway line from the Shalamcheh border in Iran to the Basra train station in Iraq.

The Basra-Shalamcheh railway project plays a crucial role in facilitating Iranian exports to Iraq and expanding pilgrimage routes, particularly during the Shia religious event of Arbaeen. It is during this event that millions of Iranian pilgrims journey to Karbala in Iraq, to visit the shrine of Imam Hussein ibn Ali. After the completion of the project, Iran's long-term objective is to further extend the railway connection to the Mediterranean Sea, linking the Imam Khomeini Port in Khorramshahr, Iran, to the port of Latakia in Syria, passing through Basra, Iraq.

Negotiations for the major Basra-Shalamcheh railway have been ongoing between Iraq and Iran over the past two decades

The most important transportation route

In early July 2019, officials from Iran, Iraq, and Syria signed a memorandum of cooperation for comprehensive transportation, aimed at enhancing joint projects and developing the infrastructure for trilateral transportation. This includes the connection of railway networks from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.

At that time, Iran's First Vice President, Eshaq Jahangiri, announced an initiative to link the 'Persian Gulf' with the Mediterranean Sea through railways and roads, in a statement to Fars News Agency. Following a meeting with railway officials from Iraq and Syria in the capital Tehran, Saeid Rasouli, the Director-General of the Iranian Railways at the time, revealed that Iran had commenced the implementation of the first phase of the project. This phase involves connecting the Imam Khomeini Port in Khorramshahr with the Shalamcheh-Basra railway lines. Once the final lines are completed, they will be connected to the port of Latakia in Syria. Rasouli described the project as "strategic and the most important among all other land transportation routes."

During his visit to Syria, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi signed a memorandum of understanding with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, establishing comprehensive and long-term strategic cooperation between the two countries. This collaboration encompasses various areas, including the completion of the railway line that connects Shalamcheh in Iran to Basra in Iraq, ultimately reaching the port of Latakia in Syria.

The development of railway networks, both domestically and internationally, takes precedence in Iran's strategy to bolster its regional and international standing, serving as a vital link between Europe, West Asia, and the Caucasus, with the countries of Central Asia, Eastern Asia, and Southern Asia.

Developing railway networks, both domestically and internationally, takes precedence in Iran's strategy to bolster its regional and international standing, serving as a vital link between Europe, West Asia, and the Caucasus, with Central, East, and South Asia

The upper hand belongs to Iran

This iron link between Iran and Iraq transcends the mere movement and transport of goods and passengers between the two countries. Instead, it holds the potential to create a regional balance in favor of Iran and the "axis of resistance," as reported by the Iranian news source, Tinn News. The vision is to establish a united economic front among Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, with the ultimate goal of laying the building blocks to expel the United States from the region. To realize this objective, it is essential to have significant crossing points between these countries. By enabling heavy commercial transportation from Iran to Latakia in Syria and Lebanon, the railway could counteract the impact of the Caesar Act sanctions on Syria. As a result, the Shalamcheh-Basra railway, extending to Latakia, is a critical strategic priority, and has led the United States to view it as a "red line", so it even attempted to obstruct its construction through establishing a military base in the Tanf region at the Iraq-Syria-Jordan border.

According to Mohammad Javad Shahjooyi, an Iranian economic expert, it is important for Iran to connect as soon as possible to Iraq's railway network, followed by connecting to the port of Latakia in Syria, subsequently establishing a stable land connection with these two allied countries. Such a move would not only enhance Iran's regional influence but also bolster the strength of the "axis of resistance."

Iran's ambitions also extend to significantly increasing its trade volume with Iraq, capitalizing on its past success in dominating the Iraqi markets. This achievement has been underscored by military and strategic expert Hatem Karim al-Falahi. Consequently, Iran seeks to exert complete control and dominance over the southern regions, where its influence is already strong across all cultural, economic, and military levels, and it can be described as presence rather than influence. The Iranian "Khatam al-Anbiya" company is now the leading contractor for numerous projects in Baghdad and southern Iraq.

Its benefits for Iraq

While speaking to Raseef22, al-Falahi clarifies, "There is no conflict between the Shalamcheh-Basra railway project and Iraq's development project initiated by former Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. The latter involves several pathways, spanning over 1,200 kilometers and also incorporating a railway line. Notably, its routes are not solely directed towards Turkey and Europe, but they also encompass connections to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and finally, one road to Syria, and therefore it takes multiple directions. Thus, the Shalamcheh-Basra railway remains an integral and pivotal part of Iraq's development project."

The primary concern for Iran is swift integration with Iraq's railway network, followed by establishing a stable land connection to the port of Latakia in Syria. This endeavor would significantly bolster Iran's regional position and give it the upper hand

He points out that, "This railway connection is not new, but rather is quite old. It was proposed earlier. However, its implementation was delayed until the pro-Iranian coordinating government took power in Baghdad, after which they began executing the project. This railway holds immense significance for Iran in both economic and tourism (religious tourism) aspects, facilitating Iran's access to Syria. Furthermore, it could potentially be used for military transportation purposes, that is, allowing the delivery of supplies and ammunition to its allies through this route."

According to al-Falahi, "For these reasons, the former Minister of Transport faced threats that if he did not implement this project, his days in the Ministry of Transport are numbered. Many who stood against Iranian projects experienced similar repercussions, including the former Minister of Transport, who halted the Shalamcheh-Basra railway project. This project aims to foster mutual interests between Iraq and Iran concerning their shared benefits in executing this railway."

An economic or military project?

The value of this project, according to Khairullah Khademi, deputy Minister of Roads and Urban Development, spans commercial, economic, and strategic aspects. By linking Iran, Iraq, and Syria through railway, it facilitates the transportation of goods from Pakistan or Iran's Chabahar Port, as well as goods arriving from China and Central Asia. These goods could be transported via train to the Sarakhs region in Iran and further to Syrian ports and the Mediterranean Sea through Iraq's railway network.

However, there are concerns about the project stemming from its association with the proposals made by Yahya Safavi, the Iranian Supreme Leader's military advisor, in late 2016. The proposals aimed to connect the Khomeini Port in Iran's Khuzestan province to Basra in Iraq, and eventually to the Latakia Port in Syria via a railway. Some analysts view this railway project as a means to solidify Iran's military, strategic, and economic ambitions, ultimately expanding its regional influence.

According to Ali Nejat, a researcher at the Middle East Center for Strategic Studies, the Shalamcheh-Basra-Latakia railway project holds tremendous importance for Iran due to several reasons, including its commercial and economic benefits. Facing severe economic challenges from Western sanctions, Tehran sees this endeavor as an opportunity to gain significant economic advantages, such as exerting control over markets in Iraq, Syria, and even Jordan. Moreover, it could serve as an alternative to competing countries in the region, potentially also establishing an unspoken economic alliance in the region.

Speaking to Raseef22, Nejat explains, "Currently, goods are transported between Iran and Syria by sea, which partially hampers trade between the two nations. Iran urgently needs infrastructural reconstruction and the development of major and minor facilities, as well as the export of materials like heavy construction supplies, necessitating a reliable railway transportation system. The triple railway line is an integral part of Syria's reconstruction project. In addition to its economic benefits and its potential to ease the pressure of Western sanctions, this railway enhances economic and security cooperation between Syria, Iraq, and Iran, facilitating religious and medical tourism between these countries."

He further emphasizes that "the Shalamcheh-Basra-Latakia railway project carries strategic significance for Tehran and could increase its geopolitical weight in the region, granting access to the Mediterranean Sea and even Africa, thus enhancing Iran's maneuverability in regional power dynamics. Completing the East-West pathway in Iran and improving its transit capabilities could elevate Iran's position in regional equations and strengthen the resistance front."

According to the Iranian General and leader, Mohsen Rezaee, "Iran wields control over 500 million people in 25 countries through its extensive trade networks."

He highlights that the success of this project is crucial since transit projects and the creation of new passages, like the Zanjan-Zour corridor intended to bypass Iran, could potentially hinder Iran's chance of becoming a regional pole, despite its strategic geopolitical location.

According to a European official monitoring Iran's regional expansion, in a statement to the British Observer, Iranians take pride in their accomplishments thus far and are actively working to secure the remainder of the route to the Mediterranean Sea. This would grant them the ability to move their military units and supplies between Tehran and the Mediterranean at their discretion. If Iran successfully gains control over this overland route, it would effectively establish dominance over Iraq and the Levant.

According to the Iranian General and leader, Mohsen Rezaee, "Iran wields control over 500 million people in 25 countries through its extensive trade networks. Rezaee – the author of the "Iranian Golden Belt" theory, which stretches from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea, passing through Iraq and Syria, aimed to hold full control and strategic dominance over the Middle East and thus exert influence on global powers – asserts that "any regional power controlling this belt can effectively oversee and manage the affairs of the entire region."

Local and international obstacles and challenges

Iraq has delayed the development of the Basra-Shalamcheh railway to prioritize the Faw-Turkey Road (also known as the Development Road or Dry Canal), according to some in Tehran, since Baghdad sees the road a critical infrastructure priority. The Faw project aims to connect the Faw Grand Port and its envisioned railway to Europe through Turkey, primarily benefiting Iraq, in contrast to the Shalamcheh-Basra-Latakia railway, an Iranian initiative, which would primarily serve Iran.

The Shalamcheh-Basra-Latakia railway project is an old proposal that has faced persistent delays due to various technical challenges, including dredging, mine clearance, and financial, legal, and political complexities involving all three countries, as well as opposition from foreign countries and entities that has further complicated the matter, according to Najat. He says, "The most crucial missing link in this project is the construction of a 32-kilometer railway stretch between Shalamcheh in Iran and Basra in Iraq. While this project has been under discussion among officials from both countries for many years, it has yet to be realized, partly due to the prevailing political and security conditions in Iraq, especially during the years from 2014 to 2017, when terrorist groups like ISIS were active in the region. Additionally, securing funding has been a challenge as security concerns have taken precedence, leaving little justification for dealing with ambitious and new projects."

He notes that "Iraq's concerns in this regard were eventually resolved in 2019. Nevertheless, some Iraqi officials argue that this railway project could hinder their plan to develop the Faw port and transform it into a fast economic highway for the region, connecting it to Turkey and, subsequently, to Syria. Moreover, Iraqi authorities believe that most of the profits from implementing the Shalamcheh-Basra railway axis will flow into Iran's coffers, with limited benefits to Iraq."

"If there exists a regional power that gains control over the Iranian Golden Belt, stretching from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea through Iraq and Syria, it would have the capacity to oversee and manage the affairs of the entire region"

According to the Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies, the Shalamcheh-Basra-Latakia railway line offers a tremendous opportunity for Iran to bolster its presence in Syria, thus increasing its participation in the country's reconstruction efforts. However, the economic objective is not its sole purpose. The extension of the railway from Iran to Iraq, and further to Syria, and then possibly to Lebanon, serves as a practical step to fulfill Iran's political agenda of maximizing its influence and control over these nations. This strategic move facilitates direct communication and support to its proxies within these countries, providing various logistical aid, including weapons, to active militias operating on their soil.

Al-Falahi characterizes the large Iraqi development project as the next "theft project" in Iraq, given his inability to reconcile the government's silence in Baghdad regarding Iraq's historical rights in Khawr Abd Allah, the Grand Faw Port, border crossings, and shared oil wells with Iran, with the Iranian encroachment into Iraqi territory, crossing international borders between the two nations, and the subsequent discussions of a project in Basra that is being agreed upon.

In his view, "The current Iraqi government holds little control, making the project vulnerable to theft, financial corruption, and administrative mismanagement, given the history of widespread corruption within Iraq. The development project could serve as a cover for squandering a substantial amount of money, especially considering the allocation of approximately 17 billion dollars for its implementation." Additionally, he points out "the role of the United States in allowing Iraq to remain under Iranian influence. Despite alternative options from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, the United States and the coordinating framework government insist on purchasing Iranian gas at inflated prices for electricity production. While the Gulf countries have proposed a project to supply Iraq with electric power, the American-Iranian inclination to cooperate on critical regional issues gives Iran the upper hand in Iraq."

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