The first train from China’s trading hub of Yiwu has arrived in Tehran, signaling Iran’s firm integration in the Beijing led-Belt and Road connectivity initiative along the New Silk Road.
The train ferrying 32 containers completed its 14-day journey, covering over 10,399 km, after passing through the arid landscape of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in Central Asia.
Iranian Railway Minister, Mohsen Pourseyyed Aqai, pointed out on Monday that the train, covering 700 km a day, had demonstrated that it was possible to substantially slash transit time for goods arriving in Iran from China. Compared to the railway option, cargo ships, setting sail from Shangahi take nearly 45 days to arrive at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
"The arrival of this train in less than 14 days is unprecedented," observed Mr. Aqai.
Analysts point out that by joining China on the railway map, Iran was establishing solid structural linkages with Eurasia along the Silk Road Economic Belt.
Yin Gang, a West Asia researcher the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, anticipates that Iran would become an active participant in the Belt and Road initiative.
"Iran is currently in desperate need of investment for infrastructure construction. However, as oil prices are low now, Iran's revenue in this sector has seen sharp decrease. At the same time, China is promoting the belt and road initiative. Iran is expected to become one of the major participants of that initiative," Mr. Yin was quoted as saying.
In China, there is anticipation that with the recent lifting of sanctions, Iran’s energy infrastructure, including its trans-border pipeline network will grow—a move that is likely to further deepen Tehran’s strategic linkages with Eurasia.
Last month, People’s Daily, the official newspaper of Communist Party of China (CPC) relayed an article which stressed the importance of Iran’s strategic location, underscored by its common borders “with 15 nations, and sea channels on its northern and southwestern coasts”. It added: “The country is expected to play a crucial role in the Belt and Road as an energy hub and access to extensive delivery routes connecting to the Middle East and Eurasia.” During the sanctions phase, China’s energy giants Sinopec and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) – had provided technical support to Iranian firms for the development of the giant South Pars gas fields and the oil fields of Yadavaran and North Azadegan, the write-up said.
China’s on-going technical support is likely to further reduce the rail transit time between China and Iran. The Global Times, a CPC tabloid, is reporting that a China-led consortium has started electrifying the rail track between Tehran and Mashaad, a major pilgrimage city. Mashaad, which, in turn, is connected by rail with Mary or ancient Marv in Turkmenistan, is the gateway for Iran’s rail connectivity with Eurasia.
The project is being developed by Iran's MAPNA Group and China's CMC and Su Power. The entire undertaking would be completed within 42 months. The $2.1 billion deal was finalized last June, with China contributing 85 per cent of the cost and Iran covering the rest.
Once complete, travel time between Tehran and Mashhad would be cut by half from the current 12 hours. The annual freight capacity would be increased to 10 million tons.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Tehran last month appears to have energized Iran’s integration in the Eurasian fold. Apart from signing a 25-year strategic plan, Beijing backed Iran’s application for full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)-a China and Russia backed grouping with a pronounced security orientation.