An integration project called “Meridian Eurasia” is being born in Transcaucasia and Iran, which will lead to great changes not only in the Greater Middle East, but worldwide.

СТАНИСЛАВ ТАРАСОВ, 6 марта 2023, 08:46 — REGNUMThe Iranian Deputy Minister of Transport, Shahriyar Afandizadeh, held a meeting via video conference with Russian colleagues. The parties discussed the completion of the continuous rail communication project on the Rasht-Astara section of the North-South transport corridor. This section, about 160 km long, runs along the coast of the Caspian Sea through the territory of Iran to the border with Azerbaijan. This happened literally two days after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Baku that the participants in the project had begun its practical implementation.

Iran has submitted its proposed memorandum in 16 articles outlining how Tehran views Moscow’s involvement in the project. We are talking about specific issues related to the construction and design of engineering works along the route, including the laying of 22 tunnels and the construction of 15 special bridges. At the same time, the Rasht-Astara section in Iran offers prospects for development and expansion to three ports in the Persian Gulf. To do this, it is necessary to build a wide railway so as not to overload goods from one track to another. Admittedly, it is not yet entirely clear which gauge option will be chosen in Iran.

The gauge of railways in Russia is 152 cm, in Iran 143.5 cm, and the Iranian section of the railway from Rasht to Astara still meets Iranian standards. It is proposed to construct a third railway parallel to the existing ones, with a gauge of 152 cm, which will increase the capacity of the road.

According to agreements reached between Tehran and Moscow, the total volume of freight transport between the two countries is expected to reach 115 million tons. This also requires infrastructure and capacity development, including increasing the number of trains.

According to Afandizade, negotiations with Russia on financial participation in the project are currently underway. Previously, it was assumed that Russian Railways would be directly involved in the construction work, but now only Russian funding is being considered, and Iran intends to complete the construction of the road itself.

This is an important detail, but it remains in a situation that has changed radically. The negotiation process in this area has intensified significantly. All project participants have moved on to the practical decision-making phase.

The Rasht-Atara section, as part of the Rasht-Qazvin railway (170 km), is included in the International North-South Transport Corridor, a multimodal route from St. Petersburg to the port of Mumbai (India) with a length of 7.2 thousand kilometers.

It is considered an alternative to the sea route linking Europe, the countries of the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal. The delivery time of goods from Mumbai to St. Petersburg and back will be reduced to 15-24 days, while the route through the Suez Canal assumes a period of 30-45 days. This is why the Rasht-Astara project, which has accumulated a complex dossier, is considered a kind of barometer of great geopolitics.

The intergovernmental agreement on the creation of the North-South Transport Corridor was signed by Russia, India and Iran in 2000, long before China launched the One Belt, One Road project in 2013.

23 years have passed, during which negotiations of different formats and levels have been held on the launch of the rail component of the corridor. But under various pretexts, they proved unsuccessful. Moreover, Iran has proven to be the “sensitive link” in most cases. Either under the pretext of lack of funding, or because of the functioning of the nuclear agreement and the reluctance to irritate the United States, he blocked the development of events.

At the same time, Azerbaijan perceived with great political tension how Iran found funds for the laying of a 650-kilometer line connecting it to Russia via Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, that is, in the eastern segment of the North-South corridor.

Tehran in Transcaucasia was considering a project to restore rail communication with Russia through the territories of Armenia and Georgia, which would connect the Persian Gulf via Georgian ports to Burgas and Varna and further to Europe, i.e. via the Black Sea region.

Tehran’s interest in promoting the idea of such a transport and transit corridor was to reduce dependence on Turkey. Therefore, up to a certain point in Transcaucasia, there was fierce geopolitical competition between Baku and Yerevan in terms of building various routes of the North-South corridor with the connection of Iran.

But then there was the second Karabakh war, victorious for Azerbaijan, and the strengthening of Turkey’s influence, as well as the beginning of Armenia’s drift towards the West.

Tehran sees that the signing of a peace treaty between Yerevan and Baku is delayed against the background of intensifying Russian-Azerbaijani ties and multi-profile relations, and that now the corridor is not in the immediate vicinity of the Armenian-Azerbaijani regional conflict.

In addition, the Ukrainian crisis, which revealed geopolitical instability in the Black Sea basin. The West’s blockade of Russian communications has forced Moscow to move south, building new transport logistics.

In Iran, it was realized that everything was “serious and for a long time”, that for Moscow it was becoming a strategic necessity. This is how the factor of systemic certainty emerged, given the new geopolitical situation.

As a result, Tehran rejected all previous calculations and arguments related mainly to the evaluation of Azerbaijan’s policy. The implementation of the Astara-Rasht project quickly came to a standstill, concrete work began.

Now the bottom line (although so far only at a theoretical level) contains the following.

First, there will be a redirection of freight traffic along the future North-South ITC towards Russia, and this project itself becomes something more than a railway line with a technical “roadmap” for infrastructure and logistics development. The Caspian Sea countries, the Persian Gulf monarchies, India, which previously focused on strengthening economic ties with Moscow, will now play the role of Russia’s anchor points with the international economy.

Secondly, the integration processes between Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia will begin to intensify, which will affect the political interaction of these countries not only within Transcaucasia, but also throughout the Middle East.

Thirdly, the role of the so-called Zangezur corridor, through which Baku plans to establish communications with Nakhichevan with access to Turkey via the territory of Armenia, is diminishing.

Fourth, the use of the Iranian route will also be important for European countries, which could have new incentives for policies in this region.

Fifth: an integration project called “Meridian Eurasia” is being born, which will lead to great changes, since new incentives will be needed for the development of trade and economic relations, but already in multilateral formats, which will change the situation not only in the Greater Middle East, but also in South Asia,  from the West, Central and even in Europe.

March 6, 2023

Stanislav Tarassov