Beyond its positive economic implications, the railway project connecting Iran, Iraq, and Syria will be a geopolitical game changer by connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf.
Sir Halford John Mackinder, one of Britain’s most prominent theorists in the field of geopolitics, discusses the significance of land connectivity between nations in his 1904 essay called The Geographical Pivot of History.
Besides introducing his notable Heartland Theory, Mackinder argued that advancements in transportation technology, such as the development of railways, have altered the balance of power in international politics by enabling a powerful state or group of states to expand its influence along transport routes.
The establishment of blocs, like the EU or BRICS, for instance, aims to enhance communication between member states. This objective has positive implications for the economy and helps reduce the risk of tensions among them.
The cost of such tensions has increased considerably, given the growing benefits and common interests achieved through strengthened ties between nations. Consequently, reinforcing connections within a specific region has a positive impact on the entire area.
Therefore, any infrastructure project between countries cannot be viewed solely from an economic standpoint; its geopolitical effects must also be highlighted.
West Asia connected by railway
In July 2018, Saeed Rasouli, head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Railways (RAI), announced the country’s intention to construct a railway line connecting the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, the Iran-Iraq-Syria railway link. This ambitious project would run from Basra in southern Iraq to Albu Kamal on the Iraqi-Syrian border and then extend to Deir Ezzor in northeastern Syria.
Undoubtedly, this project strengthens communication between the countries of West Asia and increases the need for other powers to collaborate with this important region, which is strategically located in parts of Mackinder’s “Heartland” and Nicholas Spykman’s “Rimland” of Eurasia.
Moreover, in accordance with Mackinder’s proposition, it can be argued that this railway project holds geopolitical significance for the three involved countries – Iran, Iraq, and Syria – and for West Asia as a whole.
The concept of a railway link between Iran and Iraq emerged over a decade ago. In 2011, Iran completed the 17-kilometer Khorramshahr-Shalamjah railway, which aimed to connect Iran’s railways to the city of Basra. Subsequently, in 2014, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between Tehran and Baghdad to construct the Shalamjah-Basra line.
As per the agreement, Iran was responsible for designing and building a bridge over the Arvand River, while the Iraqi side pledged to construct a 32-kilometer railway line from the Shalamjah border to the Basra railway station within Iraqi territory.
Final destination: Syria
On 14 August, 2018, Iran announced its intention to further extend the railway from its territory to Syria, with Iraq’s participation. This move aimed to counter western sanctions and enhance economic cooperation.
The railway project would begin at the Imam Khomeini port on the Persian Gulf, located in Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province, to the Shalamjah crossing on the Iraqi border. From there, the railway traverses through the Iraqi province of Basra, crossing Albu Kamal on the Syrian border and ending at the Mediterranean port of Latakia.
Iranian official sources stated that this railway would contribute to Syria’s reconstruction efforts, bolster the transport sector, and facilitate religious tourism between Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Iran would bear the costs of the project within its own territory, while Iraq would contribute its share up to the Syrian border.
During the visit of former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Iraq in March 2019, a memorandum of understanding on the project was signed between Tehran and Baghdad. However, despite the agreements, the Iraqi side has faced economic challenges and a lack of funds, resulting in a delay in the construction of the railway.
The railway project can be divided into three sections: The first section links the Imam Khomeini Port to the Shalamjah crossing on the Iraqi border. According to the Iranian Minister of Roads and Urban Development Mehrdad Bazrpash, the railway line in Iran has been completed and has reached the zero border point.
The second section will link the Shalamjah Crossing to Basra in southern Iraq, then extend to Baghdad, Anbar province, and finally, the Syrian border. The financing of this section, according to the agreement, falls under the responsibility of the Iraqi government. The commencement of this phase is expected soon.
The third section, within Syria, encompasses two routes: The northern route extends between Iraq’s al-Qaim and Syria’s Albu Kamal, then heads west towards the Syrian port of Latakia. The southern route runs from the al-Qaim crossing on the Iraqi-Syrian border to Damascus via Homs.
It should be noted that although the shortest route to Damascus is through al-Tanf, due to the presence of the illegal US occupation forces there, the longer Homs-Damascus corridor was adopted. This also ensures the passage of railways through a greater number of Syrian cities.
Although the rail line between Iran and Iraq will only span 32 km and cost approximately $120 million, divided equally, its significance extends far beyond its length. It will serve as the sole railway connection between the two countries and play a crucial role in improving communication throughout the wider region by linking China’s Belt and Road Initative (BRI) lines to Iraq via Iran.
Once completed, the project will enable Iraq to easily connect to Iran’s extensive railway network, which extends to Iran’s eastern border. This linkage will open pathways for Baghdad to connect with Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Far East.
Moreover, in the future, the project positions Iraq as a transit route for trade between the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf region and Central Asia, as well as Russia. Incidentally, Iran and Russia have just inked an agreement to establish a railway connecting the Iranian cities of Astara with Rasht, as part of the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC).
The railway line also contributes to the promotion of religious tourism among the three countries, which are home to several important Shia shrines. In September 2022, more than 21 million people from around the world, including 3 million Iranians, visited Iraq for the annual Arbaeen pilgrimage in the holy city of Karbala. This figure is likely to increase significantly with a rail link, leading to increased revenues for the Iraqi treasury.
Furthermore, the project serves as a means to bypass western sanctions and external pressures on the three countries, particularly Iran and Syria. It strengthens the independence of these nations and reduces the likelihood of foreign powers interfering in the economic relations of the project countries.
Obstacles to project implementation
Despite the signed agreements, the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus railway project has faced mixed reactions in Iraq, leading to a lack of enthusiasm for moving forward with the rail link. Only last month, the Ministry of Transport issued a clarification regarding its rail link with Iran, stressing that the project is related to “passenger transportation only.”
Iraqi politicians have expressed concerns that the rail link with Iran could hinder their country’s Dry Canal project, which aims to connect the port of Faw in Basra province to the Turkish and Syrian borders.
They believe that the Grand Faw Port is strategically positioned as the closest point for sea cargo to Europe, potentially bringing economic benefits and employment opportunities. These concerns arise from the fear that the Imam Khomeini port in Iran could gain increased importance, diminishing the significance of the Faw Port.
But Iraqi concerns actually present an opportunity to link Iran to the Dry Canal, enhancing the strategic importance of both projects and bolstering Iraq’s position as a regional trading hub. In the near future, communication and cooperation between these neighbors will be crucial in thwarting external efforts to impede the economic interdependence of the three countries.
A promising journey
The tripartite railway link project holds immense significance as it connects these countries within a larger network, resembling the historical Silk Road that facilitated trade between the east and the west for centuries.
The railway project has the ability to initiate a major transformation in West Asia if it materializes and expands further afield to countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Lebanon.
Their participation would not only reduce tensions among regional states but also yield positive economic outcomes and bolster tourism, particularly religious tourism, and foster stronger inter-regional ties.
By connecting key players in a geopolitically strategic region, the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus rail link has the potential to lay the foundation for a new West Asian paradigm that promotes connectivity, stability, and prosperity.
As seen by the recent Iran-Saudi and Syria-Saudi rapprochement agreements, the region is in a collaborative mood, actively seeking economic development instead of conflict. With China and Russia – two powers at the forefront of Eurasia’s biggest interconnectivity projects (BRI and INSTC) – brokering and impacting many of these diplomatic initiatives, expect railways, roads, and waterways to begin linking countries that have been at odds for decades.