Iraq-Iran Railway Link Project: Dimensions and Geopolitical and Economic Implications

EPC | 15 Aug 2021

It goes without saying that securing a foothold on the Mediterranean remains one of Iran's top strategic goals. To this end, Iran is pressing Iraq today to complete a joint railway project designed to link the Imam Khomeini port on the Arabian Gulf with the Syrian port of Latakia on the Mediterranean. The project includes linking the Iranian city of Khorramshahr to the city of Basra in Iraq with a 32-kilometer rail network, which ultimately leads to linking the Iranian borders with the Iraqi and Syrian borders, through trade, economic and security relations. This paper discusses the strategic dimensions of this project, its geopolitical and economic implications, and its implementation scenarios.

What is the Iraq-Iran Railway Link Project?

The idea of building a railway between Iran and Iraq is not new, in fact, it dates back more than ten years. But in August 2018, head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Railways (known as RAI) Saeed Rasouli announced that Iran plans to build a railway linking the Arabian Gulf with the Mediterranean, from Basra in southern Iraq to Albu Kamal on the Iraqi-Syrian border, all the way to Deir ez-Zor in northeastern Syria. He pointed out that the project will be attractive to China, with which Iran is eager to strengthen its economic relationship to compensate for the losses arising from the US sanctions.[1]Iraqi officials have repeatedly expressed reservations about this project in terms of its economic feasibility. They believe that the flow of goods, people and others will be almost in one direction, i.e. from Iran towards Iraq which hardly exports anything to its eastern neighbor, compared to the huge quantities of cheap goods it imports from Iran. This is in addition to the influx of millions of Iranian "Shiite" visitors each year to visit "Shiite" shrines, posing a security and economic burden on Iraq.[2]

During a visit by former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Iraq in March 2019, the Iranian and Iraqi governments signed a memorandum of understanding on a railway project. In this context, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi announced in May 2021 that negotiations with Iran to build a railway between the two countries had reached their final stages, but it had not been decided upon until now, for reasons related to Iraq's economic situation, as well as US pressures.

Iran aspires that the rail link with Iraq will include several Iraqi and Syrian cities, and serve as a major launch-pad towards North Africa and Europe. Iran aims for the project to be a safe corridor for the transfer of weapons and fighters, and a trade route to rid it of American harassment in the Arabian Gulf. It also seeks for the project to play an important role in consolidating the influence it wields in Iraq and Syria, so that it will not be affected by any future arrangements in these two countries imposed by global super powers, in addition to ensuring an easy access to the "Shiite" holy places in the two countries.

The Strategic Dimension of the Project

In light of its concern about the future of its influence in Iraq and Syria, Iran began to establish a new form of this influence to rid itself of any surprise. Iran's uncertainty about this future provides a major impetus for finding a strategic alternative that links Iraq and Syria with the vehicles of Iran's regional strategy. In light of Israeli and even US pressure in terms of intercepting Iranian land transport across the Iraqi and Syrian borders, whether through drone attacks or sanctions on Iranian transport companies, most notably Mahan, which the United States accused of transporting weapons and fighters into Syria, in contravention of the regulations and laws of the International Civil Aviation Organization, Iran began to think of more practical solutions. Accordingly, Iran seems determined to implement the rail link project with Iraq in order to address these complex strategic considerations.

Accordingly, there are several strategic goals that Iran aspires to achieve through this project, most notably:

  1. Establish a safe land corridor linking the Iraqi and Syrian borders with the Iranian borders.
  2. Link the port of Imam Khomeini with the Syrian port of Latakia on the Mediterranean Sea.
  3. Facilitate the transfer of personnel, reinforcements, and goods from Iran to Iraq and Syria, and then to other countries.
  4. Enhance Iran's importance to China's Belt and Road project, as a way to circumvent US sanctions, as well as creating a strategic ground for China to compete with the United States in the region.
  5. The railway link project will be of great benefit as a means of transporting weapons, such as light weapons or short-range missiles. With the majority of Iranian air transport to Syria halting, rail linkage may become the most effective option. Rather, this option could contribute to greatly expanding Iran's logistical capacity in Iraq and Syria, especially as Iran aspires to employ it in Syria's reconstruction projects.
  6. Iran, through the railway link project with Iraq, aspires to thwart the New Levant project. Tehran seems very afraid of the success of this project because it believes that it will lead to the removal of one of the pillars of its strategic project in the Middle East, namely Iraq. This may lead, in Iran’s view, to a major gap in its regional strategy that may negatively affect its roles in Syria and Lebanon, especially since the new Levant project ultimately aims to link these countries with each other.
  7. Through the project, Iran seeks to get rid of maritime harassment it faces when transporting oil or in relation to commercial dealings with Syria, in addition to preserving its naval power from depletion as a result of continuous targeting, whether in the Sea of Oman or the Red Sea.

Project Details

Work on the project began with the signing of several memoranda of understanding between Iran and Iraq. Iran has linked the military successes achieved by the factions close to it in Iraq after the end of the war on ISIS, by ensuring that these forces are deployed along the geographical strip on which Iran aspires to establish the railway project, with its ambition to complete this project. Iran has also created a situation where security successes and economic ambitions are intertwined in a way that establishes a safe environment for the implementation of this project.

In addition to the security efforts made by Iran to initiate this project, the Iranian Assistant Minister of Roads and Urban Development, Khairallah Khademi, revealed that the Iraq-Iran railway project will be carried out with Iranian investments and that the importance lies in handing over the lands to Iranian investors in order to start construction operations. He said that the Shalamcheh-Basra railway is an international project that will lead to a strategic change for Iran, in terms of transit and railway corridor, linking it with the Syrian ports and the Mediterranean Sea, and forming an (east-west) corridor for Iran. He added: "The project allows for the transport of goods from Pakistan or the Iranian port of Chabahar, and goods that arrive from China and Central Asia via train to Syrian ports and the Mediterranean via the Iraqi railway network."[3]

In this context, since 2017, Iran and the factions close to it have started moving east towards the Syrian border, where the Albu Kamal area is. Iran has built two land corridors towards the Mediterranean Sea. The first was the northern corridor that crossed through Sinjar. The second route followed the Euphrates out of Baghdad, snaking through the desert to the west and north until it reached the border town of al-Qaim before crossing into Syria.

To this end, Iran designed the railway linkage project with Iraq to be in three stages:

Stage I: Link the Imam Khomeini Port to the Iraqi city of Basra via a railway network funded by the "Mostazafan" Foundation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Stage II: Link the Basra Governorate with the capital Baghdad, then Anbar Governorate, and then the Syrian border. It is projected that the Iraqi government will finance this stage.[4]

Stage III: This stage has been put into practice since the idea of the project began to crystallize in the minds of the Iranian decision-makers, and it starts from inside Syrian territory. Thanks to the areas where Iranian-friendly armed factions are stationed, Iran has succeeded in establishing land bridges that will be directly linked to the railway project when it reaches the Syrian border, as follows:[5]

  • The Upper Southern Route. This corridor passes through the geographical area between the city of Al-Qaim in Iraq and the Syrian city of Albu Kamal. This land bridge is considered the most used by the factions close to Iran, which are present in this area. These factions have also been subjected to many aerial bombardments, the most recent of which was the bombing of a vehicle of the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades, while transporting weapons into Syrian territory on July 19, 2021. This road heads north towards the Syrian port of Latakia, which is used by Iran, and specifically the Revolutionary Guards, in money laundering and illegal trade operations.
  • The Lower Southern Route. This route extends through the area between the Iraqi Al-Walid border crossing and the Syrian area of Al-Tanf. This route is considered the shortest path from Baghdad to Damascus, although it passes directly through Al-Tanf, a strategic area controlled by US forces west of the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran is also trying to exploit this path to achieve an effective geographical connection with the Lebanese Hezbollah.

Challenges

The railway link project faces a number of challenges, most notably:

  1. A financial challenge. The estimated cost of this project is about $21 billion, an amount that Iran cannot afford due to the deterioration of its economy. Iraq is also unable to provide such an amount in light of the economic crisis it has been experiencing. Also, a war-ravaged infrastructure in Syria, particularly the railway sector, may not seem ready for such a project.
  2. A security challenge. Looking at the areas through which the Iranian railway project passes inside Iraq, it is clear that most of these areas are witnessing an escalating activity for ISIS cells, after they were previously held by the organization. Despite Iranian endeavors to secure these areas through the factions close to it, they are still reports of escalating security tensions, which affects the feasibility and effectiveness of this project.
  3. A US-Israeli challenge. During the past period, both the US administration and Israel have attempted, and are still, to disrupt Iran's transfers of weapons and fighters through land corridors, whether by targeting them or imposing restrictions on air and sea transportation. Therefore, it is not expected that these two countries will accept the transport operations that Iran can carry out through the rail link with Iraq to Syria, especially since Iran will be able to transport everything without supervision or even inspection.
  4. The New Levant Project. Although the Al-Kazemi government has completed the executive approvals for the railway link with Iran, it seems more enthusiastic about the New Levant project, especially as it provides greater economic feasibility than the railway link with Iran. Hence, Iran will face a difficult challenge in dissuading the Al-Kazemi government from participating in this project, which may derail its geopolitical ambitions.
  5. The economic openness of the Arab Gulf states to Iraq. Such openness could bring great economic benefits to Iraq, which might deprive the railway link project with Iran of its economic feasibility.
  6. In addition to the above, Turkey, in turn, aspires to establish a rail link from Istanbul to Basra. This poses a challenge to the Iranian railway project with Iraq and may create a new arena for Turkish-Iranian rivalry in Iraq.

Geopolitical and Economic Implications

The railway link project is likely to result in many serious geopolitical and economic repercussions, the most important of which can be summarized as follows:

  1. The Iranian railway link project may affect the economic feasibility envisaged by the Grand Faw Port project, especially since the first project will turn Iraq into a mere transit area for Iran. Hence, the main purpose of the Iranian railway project is to link Chinese and Iranian goods to European markets, by linking Iranian ports to these markets, which would deal a major blow to the Grand Faw Port project.
  2. The rail link project would remove significant barriers to Iranian control of Syria, enabling Tehran to move fighters and weapons more efficiently. The road from Baghdad to Damascus will be virtually open to Iranian traffic.
  3. The project will consolidate Iran's influence in Iraq and Syria. Iran is seeking to disrupt efforts made by the two countries to restore their sovereignty and ability to govern as it was in the past. Hence, the combination of the railway link project and the presence of Iranian proxies along the route targeted by this project will leave both Iraq and Syria with no choice in the future, but to reconcile Iran's interests with theirs to some extent.
  4. This project constitutes a major challenge to efforts made by Egypt and Jordan to reconnect Iraq within a common economic ecosystem known as the New Levant Project.
  5. Through this project, Iran seeks to move from the (Shiite Crescent Project) to the (Railway Belt Project), by linking Central Asia with the Mediterranean Sea. If Iran succeeds in linking the railway project with Iraq and Syria to Azerbaijan's Astara project, then it will have a great geopolitical weight that will enable it to control all economic and political interactions in the region.
  6. Iraq is the dry channel needed to connect the ports of the Arab Gulf states to the heart of Europe. Hence, the successful implementation of the Iranian railway project with Iraq will have major repercussions on the Arab Gulf states, which are trying today to counterbalance Iranian influence in Iraq. It [the project] will also constitute a stumbling block in the way of any attempts to expand Gulf trade and economic relations with Iraq.
  7. Through the railway link project, Iran seeks to create a new sphere of influence towards the Mediterranean to prevent any future dangers. The fact that Israel is among the objectives of this project adds an ideological dimension to Tehran's influence-building policy, especially as it sees in this project an opportunity to end the idea of isolating Lebanon's Hezbollah from Iran.

Project Trajectories amidst Current Geopolitical Shifts

There are three possible scenarios for Iran railway link project with Iraq:

First, a successful project. This scenario assumes that the Iranian railway project with Iraq will succeed, especially since the Al-Kazemi government has completed all implementation procedures. This is in addition to the political support that this project receives from political blocs and armed factions close to Iran in Iraq, on the grounds that they are among the primary beneficiaries of it. These factions hope to obtain through the project investment contracts and participate in the construction of the railway network inside Iraq, or to support their military roles in the Syrian arena, driven by the belief that this project may allow for free and safe movement, away from American or Israeli attacks. This scenario is unlikely but remains a possibility.

Second, a faltering project. This scenario assumes that the Iranian railway link project with Iraq will falter as a result of economic and security challenges. Also, the Al-Kazemi government is still reluctant to move forward with this project, despite signing many memoranda of understanding in this regard. This is due to the fact that this project has serious repercussions on the feasibility of the Grand Faw Port project. There are also US pressures and Israeli fears from this project. It also comes at a time when Arab Gulf states are trying to open up economically to Iraq, which may create more feasible opportunities than the Iranian railway project. Thus, this project will face major challenges before it is translated on the ground. This scenario is the most likely so far.

Third, a totally failed project. This scenario assumes that the Iranian railway project with Iraq will fail completely because Iran's ambitions for it go beyond many countries, and because Tehran links it to its regional strategy. This is in addition to unstable internal and external conditions surrounding Iran today, which makes this project facing the prospect of failure, especially as it collides with many other regional projects. Therefore, Iran’s geopolitical ambitions may eventually stop at a limit, especially in light of China's Belt and Road Initiative. Moreover, Iran does not have opportunities today to implement strategic projects independent of other international powers close to it that are active in the Middle East, specifically China and Russia. But this scenario is almost unlikely.

Conclusions

Iranian strategic plans to establish a rail link with Iraq are receiving high-level attention. What has facilitated this task for Iran is the presence of a large number of political parties and armed factions linked, in one way or another, to the security and political decision-making circles in Iran which has been employing its roles and dominance over Iraqi geography in the service of the Iranian strategy against other countries in the region. Iraq has become a regional bridge through which Iran has been able to play pressing and influential regional roles, which it is trying to translate now through the rail link project with Iraq.

Iran's long-term plans for this project include linking up with favorable areas for its expansion. Therefore, it needs a cross-border network that connects it with the allies as an active element in any conflict, and this requires the establishment of a land bridge (overlapping rail network) that increases the strength of the "axis of resistance" in the eyes of the Iranians.

However, despite these great Iranian ambitions, the railway project with Iraq is still just an idea that has not been translated into reality, for many internal and external reasons, including those related to Iran and Iraq, and others that go beyond these two countries. The repercussions of this project go beyond its economic value proposition, which Iran stresses, to the extent that it will impose a new geopolitical reality in the region if it succeeds, resulting in major challenges. The prospect that the project would falter, but not completely fail, appears to be the most likely scenario so far.

Endnotes

[1]Shatha Khalil: “Iran and the Railway Link Project across Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean” - Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies, May 19, 2021. (Arabic) https://bit.ly/2WaepAF

[2]“Baghdad government goes along with Tehran's dream of a railway link connecting Iran with the Mediterranean” - Al-Arab Newspaper, May 17, 2021. (Arabic) https://bit.ly/3wX2F0J

[3]“Iranian investments to implement the rail link project between Basra and Shalamcheh” - Shafaq News website, May 17, 2021. (Arabic) https://bit.ly/36NMJ6r

[4]“Implications of railway link project between Iran, Iraq, and Syria” - Shanashel website, May 23, 2021. (Arabic) https://bit.ly/3rxKyO1

[5] David Adesnik and Behnam Ben Taleblu, Burning Bridge: The Iranian Land Corridor to The Mediterranean, Foundatıon for Defense of Democracıes, Washington, Dc, 2019, pp.20-22.

 

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