Prospects of Iran-Afghanistan Railroad Evaluated

Prospects of Iran-Afghanistan Railroad Evaluated
Prospects of Iran-Afghanistan Railroad Evaluated

A new railroad running between Khaf in Iran and Herat in Afghanistan has generated much optimism in the two countries, as it has the potential to boost bilateral travel and trade. 
The rail link, part of the ambitious Five-Nation Railway Corridor project, is important to the larger region. While there are great expectations over the FNRC project and the Khaf-Herat railroad’s recent inauguration in the participating countries, the road ahead will not be easy and the project faces implementation problems as well as competition from rival projects, reads an article published by the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm.  The full text follows:




In December 2020, Iran and Afghanistan inaugurated the first cross-border railroad between the two countries. Work on the 225–kilometer railroad, which links Khaf in eastern Iran with Herat in western Afghanistan, began in 2007. Of this line’s four sections – two are in Iran and the rest in Afghanistan – an 85-km-long section running between Ghurian and Herat remains to be completed. 
A train carrying 500 tons of cement made the inaugural run between Khaf and Ghurian, which route will carry both freight and passenger trains. The $75 million railroad linking Iran with Afghanistan has been funded by Iran as part of its development assistance to Afghanistan.
Iran’s trade with Afghanistan is growing; Tehran has replaced Pakistan as Afghanistan’s top trade partner since 2017. Improving overland connectivity, including the India-built Delaram-Zaranj highway or Route 606 connecting Afghanistan’s cities via Garland Highway to the Iranian border, has facilitated the growth of this trade. 
Afghan cargo is currently being carried by road to Chabahar Port and other Iranian cities via the Iranian road network. The Khaf-Herat railroad will boost this trade further; it will carry an estimated 6 million tons of cargo and a million passengers per year. 
Trainloads of Afghan goods instead of mere truckloads will gain access to Iran’s rail network to reach not only Iranian cities but also seaports in the Persian Gulf, Sea of Oman, Caspian Sea and land-ports in western and northwestern Iran from where they will access world markets.
However, the Khaf-Herat railroad will not only boost Afghanistan’s trade with Iran or the Afghan economy. It also has immense value for Iran and for an array of countries beyond, including Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China and India. 
As Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently observed on Twitter, the Khaf-Herat railroad’s real significance is for “the greater region”.




The implications of Khaf-Herat railroad will likely be felt way beyond the two cities and even the two countries that it links. 
Indeed, this stretch of rail track is a key component of the $2 billion Five-Nation Railway Corridor (FNRC) project. The project envisages the construction of a railroad running through China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Iran onward to Turkey. It will link these countries not only to each other, but also to Europe. 
An estimated 1,148 kilometers of the proposed 2,000-km-long rail corridor will run through the Afghan provinces of Kunduz, Balkh, Jowzjan, Faryab, Badghis and Herat. 
The Khaf-Herat railroad is the part of the FNRC project where trains will cross from Afghanistan into Iran. It will boost travel and transportation capacity among member countries and energize their national economies, but will also provide the landlocked Central Asian states with access to the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman. For Central Asian countries, this is a shorter and less expensive route to the sea than for instance the Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran rail corridor.
In particular, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan can look forward to additional gains from the railroad via Afghanistan and Iran, since they will be able to access maritime trade routes as well as Europe through connections with Afghanistan. 
Previously, poor bilateral relations among Central Asian countries, low regional integration and inefficient border transit stood in the way of intra-regional and inter-regional trade. The railroad will reduce their dependence on Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as on Russia.
While trade between Herat and Khaf in itself could help Herat emerge as a trading hub, the city could become a regional hub for loading and unloading goods headed to China, Central Asia or Iran when the FNRC project takes off. Afghan analysts project that the city could emerge as Iran’s gateway to Central Asia and vice versa.
As for Iran, the development of Khaf-Herat railroad is part of its larger strategy in Afghanistan. Tehran is keen to create more jobs and reduce poverty in western Afghanistan in order to stem the flow of Afghan migrants into Iran. In this regard, connectivity projects like the Khaf-Herat and Chabahar-Zahedan-Mashhad railroads will improve economic development in the eastern provinces of Sistan-Baluchistan, South Khorasan, Khorasan Razavi and Kerman.
The Khaf-Herat railroad is an important victory for Iran. Its construction was achieved despite US sanctions on Iran’s economy. Tehran’s determined pursuit of trans-border rail networks has helped Iran integrate into the regional economy and has weakened the impact of US sanctions. 
According to Iranian analysts, Iran’s strategy could enable the rise of a new, Iran-led cultural and economic community.
However, important obstacles remain to the realization of the full potential of Khaf-Herat railroad. Kabul is lagging behind in implementing the project and difficulties in finding funding partners are delaying the progress on the Afghan leg of the FNRC project. 
The Ghurian-Herat railroad is yet to be completed. The fragile security situation in Afghanistan will affect the safety of trains traversing its soil.
Competition from other actors and their connectivity projects could also reduce the prospects for Iran-Afghanistan interconnectivity. Like Iran, Pakistan hopes to become a major transshipment hub and seeks to draw the exports of Central Asian States toward its own ports. 
The FNRC project is also likely to face stiff competition from the Middle Corridor Rail Network, which runs from Turkey through the South Caucasus and Central Asia to China, rather than transiting through Iran and Afghanistan.




The Khaf-Herat railroad will provide a boost to trade and travel between Iran and Afghanistan. However, this is only a small part of the benefits that could accrue to the two countries from this rail link. 
Upon the completion of FNRC project, including the Khaf-Herat railroad segment, the rail link between Kabul and Tehran will become a key part of a regional transportation network. 
Nevertheless, to realize this vision and tap the full potential of the Khaf-Herat railroad, Iran and Afghanistan will have to overcome serious challenges and fight off stiff competition from rivals.

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