Domestic Economy

Iran-Iraq Rail Linkup Challenges

Iran-Iraq Rail Linkup Challenges
Iran-Iraq Rail Linkup Challenges

After repeated delays, Iran and Iraq in April agreed to relaunch efforts to connect the Iranian border town of Shalamcheh with the southern Iraqi city of Basra via a new stretch of railroad. 
The project is part of both countries’ use of rail network to expand infrastructure and secure their regional positions. However, construction has been held up by technical challenges. On the other hand, progress has been held up as alternative competing routes have emerged, wrote. The full text of the report follows:

Technical Challenges

Iraqi Minister of Transport Razzaq Al-Saadawi traveled to Tehran on April 6 to meet with Iranian Minister of Roads and Urban Development Mehrdad Bazrpash. 
The outcomes of the meeting included an agreement to improve transport connections. In particular, the focus was on reinvigorating plans to realize the envisioned Basra-Shalamcheh railroad, with construction expected to last 18 months.
The project has faced challenges since its inception. Baghdad and Tehran first signed an agreement to develop the route in 2014 but suspended plans the same year as the self-styled terrorist ISIS group violently swept through northern Iraq. 
Following improved security conditions, the two neighbors in December 2021 committed to complete the railroad within two years. But since then, no progress has been made.
Per the most recent accord, Iran is responsible for constructing a 900-meter (2,953 feet) bridge over the waterway that divides the two countries, known as the Arvandroud river in Iran and Shatt Al-Arab in Iraq. Iran has already extended its rail network to the border, but has yet to build the overpass over the waterway. As for Iraq, it is expected to build a railroad covering the 32 km (20 miles) distance from Basra to the border.
Speaking to, Jalal Mokhtari, the head of public relations at the Islamic Republic of Iran Railways (IRIR), explained that there are complexities to constructing “a movable bridge for trains and ships to pass through the Arvand [river].”
Dredging of the waterway will be necessary to create space in the channel for both the movable infrastructure and passing boats. The last round of dredging was conducted in 1978, the year prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the subsequent 1980-88 war between the two neighbors. The accumulation of sediment since then has greatly decreased the river’s capacity.
The Iraqi side has not started construction on tracks on its side of the border, im
Asserting that the process of removing war remnants had been completed on Iranian land, Mokhtari told, “We are waiting for the Iraqi side’s demining operation to build the rail track.”
Other challenges for both governments, including economic considerations, have also hamstrung the project. Part of the issue has been over who will carry out construction. Iranian media have reported that progress has been slowed by Baghdad’s hesitancy over Tehran’s previous contractor for the project, the Mostazafan Foundation. Iraqi concerns included questions over the Iranian foundation’s non-specialization in implementing such a project.
Vahid Ali Qardashi, director of foreign trade at IRIR, told that construction in Iran will now instead be led by Khatam Al-Anbiya, the construction arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. 
Qardashi also said IRIR would have oversight in “implement[ing] the project in coordination with the Iraqi side.”
The change of Iranian contractor is said to have satisfied the concerns of Iraqi authorities. Importantly, it is also seen as a sign of the alignment and close cooperation of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration with IRGC. Indeed, the former has been handing contracts for major construction projects to IRGC-linked companies.

Iran Drives the Project

The Raisi administration is using the rail project as part of a strategy to secure its regional position by creating diverse transit routes with neighboring countries that employ sea, road and rail connections. 
Tehran is pursuing the Basra-Shalamcheh railroad in conjunction with connections to Iranian ports on the Persian Gulf and a wide expansion of Iran's national railroad network that entails at least 15 major projects.
Ongoing initiatives include the development of international connections to Iran’s neighbors Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan, and other links that may reach the port of Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Railroads are also central to the International North-South Transportation Corridor, an ambitious project seeking to connect India to Central Asia and Russia via Iran. 
INSTC holds a lot of promise for Tehran, whose importance to the project has increased amid western sanctions on Moscow over Russia’s Feb. 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Alongside political benefits, these regional initiatives will also have economic dividends for Iran, increasing trade and connections with its neighbors. The projects could help establish trade corridors through Iranian territory, allowing the country to be at the center of goods flows both east and west, and north and south. Amid western pressure and sanctions on Iran, such moves build its regional diplomatic and economic power.

Iran-Iraq by Rail

The Basra-Shalamcheh railroad is not the only project geared to connect Iran to its western neighbor by railroad. 
Tehran has allocated 6,000 billion rials ($12.3 million) to complete a project to connect the Khosravi border crossing, located in Kermanshah Province, to the Iranian national rail network. The crossing is located 260 km (161.5 miles) west of the eponymous provincial capital.
The Khosravi terminal has a comparatively beneficial position compared to Shalamcheh. The Iraqi station of Khanaqin in Diyala Governorate is located less than 20 km (12 miles) away, and both Baghdad and Tehran are geographically closer to Khosravi than Shalamcheh. Thus, the terminal could prove a vital rail node.
Against this backdrop, there are suggestions that the Kermanshah-Khosravi-Khanaqin railroad could be cheaper to build than the Basra-Shalamcheh railroad. However, the two projects should be seen as complementary, with Tehran aiming to complete both routes in parallel.
Increased border connections will also alleviate some of the pressures on existing infrastructure. Although there are seven official border crossings between Iran and Iraq, Shalamcheh and Chazabeh in Khuzestan Province are the busiest. This is especially the case during religious holidays, when Shia Muslim pilgrims from Iran, in addition to Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, travel to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf in Iraq. Around two million religious tourists passed through Shalamcheh and Chazzabeh for the Arbaeen pilgrimage in September 2022. New infrastructure, including a rail route to Basra, could ease such pressures.

Iraqi Hesitancy

For Iraq, the completion of the Basra-Shalamcheh railroad is part of its own plans to further develop rail connections. In addition to being linked to other important Iraqi locations such as Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf, it could be part of a wider international network. This could help increase the number of tourists, including pilgrims to religious sites, bringing in more visitors and money.
But Baghdad’s commitment to the project appears uncertain, with its attention seemingly fixed on other infrastructure plans. Iraqi Transport Minister Saadawi in March announced a grand project dubbed the “Development Road.” The endeavor will see a 1,200-km railroad and parallel motorway connecting the southern Al-Faw Port in Basra Governorate to Turkey, and is due to be completed by 2025.
There is a belief among some in Iran that Iraq has delayed developing the Basra-Shalamcheh railroad in order to focus on the Faw-Turkey route, which Baghdad appears to view as one of its infrastructure priorities. Added to this is an Iranian perception that US influence has also contributed to what is seen as Iraqi hesitancy about implementing the bilateral rail project.
Despite the potential promise of the Basra-Shalamcheh endeavor, and the Raisi administration’s strategy of creating diverse transit routes to secure its regional position, the railroad's completion remains a distant prospect under current conditions. 
Alongside the technical issues, including demining and dredging, alternative routes may take precedence. Against this backdrop, it may be years before passengers can traverse the waterway dividing Iran and Iraq by rail.

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