by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 48, No. 4, Ramadan, 1440)
China’s Silk Road project connecting a vast swathe of the Eurasia landmass with Europe may have caught the world’s imagination but it is not the only game in town. Another less spectacular connectivity project between Iran, Iraq, and Syria may not pack quite the financial punch but its economic and geostrategic importance cannot be underestimated. Throw in Turkey into the mix and a very interesting scenario begins to emerge.
The three-country proposed railway link, portions of which are already in place, would connect the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. It will also reconfirm Iran’s role as the dominant regional power. This comes at a time when both Iraq and Syria need massive investment for infrastructure development following the devastating wars the two countries were subjected to. Iran’s western neighbors were able to defeat the takfiri terrorists, thanks to significant support from Tehran with its military playing an important advisory role, as well as Hizbullah.
The potential of the Iran-Iraq-Syria railway link is immense. Turkey is sure to join this network once it sorts out its failed policy in Syria. The other factor would be Ankara coming out from under Washington’s shadow and quitting NATO. With growing deterioration in US-Turkish relations and Ankara strengthening ties with Russia, pulling out of NATO now seems a much more distinct possibility for Turkey than ever before.
If the regional bloc of four countries can be consolidated, it will help expand trade between them tremendously. Further, it will also potentially open an opportunity for Pakistan to join the group. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani mentioned this in his joint press conference in Tehran with visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on April 22. President Rouhani said that Turkey and Iran already have a rail link; this can be extended to Pakistan as well.
The road and railway connectivity discussions between Iran, Iraq, and Syria have been underway for many months. Their aim is to boost trade by speeding up the transportation of goods. Time is money. Often, perishable goods are involved and if they can be transported to markets quickly, it will not only result in increased sales but also cut losses.
Iraqi Railways Company chief Salib al-Husayni said that a summit will be held between the countries to further discuss the matter, according to a report in the Arabic-language al-Sumeria news website on April 12. Al-Husayni made the comments on the sidelines of the joint Syrian-Iraqi committee meeting in Damascus.
As part of the project, Iran plans to build a railway linking Shalamcheh in Iran to the southern Iraqi city of al-Basrah. The link is estimated to cost 2.22 billion rials and will connect Iran to Syria via Iraq.
During his visit to Damascus in early April, Iran’s First Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri had said, “We will connect the Persian Gulf from Iraq to Syria and the Mediterranean via railway and road.” His visit took place against the backdrop of a series of “historic” agreements signed earlier this year between Iran and Syria. These included a “long-term strategic economic cooperation” agreement described as a sign of changing realities in the Muslim East.
Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis said the “historic” agreements covered cooperation in the fields of industry, trade, and agriculture. He called the agreement “a message to the world on the reality of Syrian-Iranian cooperation.”
With the Western-Zionist-Saudi-backed terrorists defeated in Syria, the country is moving toward the phase of reconstruction. This is where Iran, which has been instrumental in defeating the terrorists, comes in to play a significant role in Syrian reconstruction as well.
Both Iraq and Syria are anxious to expand political and economic ties with Iran as they seek assistance in their post-war reconstruction efforts. The railway link is an important component of this initiative. Iran and Iraq signed five memorandums of understanding for the expansion of bilateral cooperation in various economic and healthcare sectors in March.
This also signaled Iraq’s intention to not become a “party to the system of [US-imposed] sanctions against Iran” as Prime Minister ‘Adil ‘Abd al-Mahdi said earlier in February. In addition to deep religious ties between the two countries with millions of pilgrims moving in both directions annually, Iraq is also heavily dependent on Iran for everything from food, fruits and vegetables, to machinery, electricity, and natural gas. In 2018, Iran’s exports to Iraq totaled $8.7 billion, surpassing Turkey’s $7.3 billion worth of exports in the same year. President Rouhani has said that Iran and Iraq have plans to expand bilateral trade volume to $20 billion in the near future.
Given that Iraq under Saddam Husayn had attacked Iran in September 1980 and caused massive devastation of the Islamic Republic for eight years, Iran’s magnanimity is remarkable. The war had the backing of all the Arabian regimes (except Syria), the Western world, as well as Russia. The confederacy of kufr joined hands to try and destroy the only Islamic state of modern times, but failed.
It also shows that Iran has always maintained good neighborly relations and has not attacked any country in 250 years. It has been the victim of repeated aggressions but valiantly defending its honor and territory. Iran’s exemplary conduct toward its neighbors has made them realize that it is a friend in need. After all, it was Iran’s help that enabled both Iraq and Syria to defeat the US-Zionist-Saudi-backed takfiri terrorists.
In addition to economic and trade relations, Iran, Iraq, and Syria have also moved toward strategic and military cooperation. While American forces are illegally occupying parts of Syria, in Iraq they are present with the consent of the Iraqi government.
During his visit to Tehran in early April, Iraqi Prime Minister ‘Adil ‘Abd al-Mahdi was accompanied by the Iraqi armed forces chief, Lieutenant General ‘Uthman al-Ghanimi. They also met Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei. During the meeting, Imam Khamenei advised the visiting Iraqi delegation to get rid of the US forces from their soil as soon as possible. In Iraq, there is much resentment toward the presence of US forces.
It does not make sense for Iraq to allow US forces on its soil when they have caused so much mayhem in the country. Now that Iraq and Iran have entered into a strategic partnership agreement that will be mutually beneficial to both, there is no reason for US forces to train Iraqi troops. Iran can do a far better job of this, as has been demonstrated through its help in training al-Hashd al-Sha‘bi militia that was instrumental in defeating the US-backed takfiri terrorists.
During his visit to Tehran in early April the Iraqi Prime Minister acknowledged that Iran was key to brining peace and stability to his country. It is better to rely on a time-tested friend (Iran) than a greedy and destructive power (the US).