New links to Russia, India and Central Asia fuel visions of further progress
If he were alive today, Darius the Great would have cheered the commissioning by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in March of a new railway connecting their countries. The fifth century Persian king was able to dominate much of West Asia in part because he understood the strategic importance of transportation and organized one of the world's first highways: the Royal Road. The route spanned all of modern-day Iraq and Turkey, and cut messengers' travel times by a factor of 12.
Under Rouhani, who faces reelection on May 19, Iran has made its own bid to replicate Darius' feat. Some may consider Iran a pariah state, but an increasingly impressive network of road and rail links is tying the country into the global trading patterns of powerful neighbors. Although Iran's ambitions are large and strategic, small railway projects like this one play an important role.
The new section is only 10km long, linking Astara in Iran to Astara in Azerbaijan. It is one of the final pieces to complete the North-South Transportation Corridor, which will connect India and Russia via Iran.
When the corridor is completed later this year, its government and private sector supporters expect travel on this route will be twice as fast as via the sea, which requires passage through the Suez Canal and the Strait of Gibraltar, before the English Channel and ending somewhere on the northern coast of Europe.
While shipping remains the lowest cost option for long distance trading, the speed of rail matters for many goods. Fresh foods such as apples, onions, citrus fruit and melons can survive a 20-day train trip from Mumbai to Moscow, for example, but would rot if they spent 40 days in a container at sea. With the continuation of European sanctions on Russia, the idea of a reliable supply route to the country that circumvents Europe is attractive to Russian and Indian shippers.
Iran also stands to benefit from increased transit cargo. At present, roughly 1.5 million tons of foreign cargo are carried by its railways annually. With the North-South Transportation Corridor fully operational, Azerbaijani railway officials predict that figure will more than triple — to an average of 135 fully laden rail cars every day. Over the longer term, some think that figure could double yet again. Combined with an already robust truck trade, India-Russia business transiting through Iran would generate both needed tax revenues and jobs for a struggling Iranian economy.
Beyond its economic logic, this new railway helps return Iran to what it sees as its historic role. As its transportation minister Ali Nikzad said recently: "Iran lies on the crossroads of the East and the West and the Silk Road. This is not a random event. It is history which says Iran is the point of equilibrium in the region."
In from the cold
Reclaiming that status will not be easy, though. Decades of international sanctions dried up funding for new projects, diverted commerce, and scared away many global investors. Railways suffered. Until recently, Iran struggled to add more than 200km of railway each year.
Now, the mood in the Iranian railway industry has changed. With the lifting of international sanctions and Western investors now exploring Iran, the country now plans to add nearly 2,000km of railroad every year for the next five years.