Iran-China Railroad – Tajikistan’s Latest Mega-Distraction?

by Myles G. Smith on 7/26/2012 · 12 comments

With work essentially stopped at Rahmon’s marquee ‘project of the century’, including thousands of layoffs of construction workers who might be wishing they had gone to Russia this summer, time has arrived for Tajikistan to come up with a replacement nation-saving mega project. Perhaps this is why we are again hearing talk of a plan to build a railroad linking the country with China and Iran.

The line would run from Iran’s existing spur to Herat to southern Tajikistan, assumedly near the US-funded bridge at Nizhny Pyanzh, then proceed to Yavan, through the Rasht Valley to Kyrgyzstan’s Alai Valley, cross the Irkeshtam Pass and descend to Kashgar, in southwestern Chinese Xingjiang.

Speculative map of the proposed Iran-China railway.

The project has been kicking around for years, though somehow has never gotten off the ground. Perhaps that somehow was the likely multi-billion dollar tab that no one is committed to picking up. Or the technical complications of building the line at high altitudes and through narrow river valleys. Or the fact that China, Iran, and the Central Asian republics all use different rail gauges. Or that existing lines already link Iran and Central Asia. And that Afghanistan is a war zone. And occasionally, so is the Rasht Valley.

All that aside, Iran and Tajikistan have started talking up the project again of late. Kyrgyz officials expressed no interest in the project as recently as June, and rightly so, it would only pass through a remote and sparsely populated valley. Then this month, Iran’s ambassador in Bishkek recently announced that Iran would pay for the stretch through Kyrgyzstan, which was swayed by the no-risk proposition. While any charity is generous, this stretch is short and almost entirely flat.  The Tajik line would also not connect to Kyrgyzstan’s own nation-saving mega project, a rail line that would connect China and Uzbekistan across the Torugart Pass, north of Irkeshtam across an impenetrable range.

Kyrgyzstan has bandied that rail project around since at least the mid-90s, though Atambayev and Babanov have all but staked the country’s economic future on the idea. The two repeatedly insisted after repeated results-free trips to Beijing that ‘every issue related to the project is solved, except financing’. When talking about two threads of iron to cost Kyrgyzstan about 40% of a year’s GDP, financing is really the issue, is it not? Thus, Kyrgyzstan is left with two bad options: rails for minerals, or rails for tolls. Either Chinese enterprises would get privileged access to mineral concessions, or would be permitted to run the railroad to recoup the costs. Both options bring serious political risks for Bishkek, as I have argued in the past.

Tajikistan would have to offer China a similar deal. Like when Dushanbe unceremoniously gave away 1,100 sq km of mountainous territory to China in 2011, or when leases agricultural land to Chinese farming enterprises, Dushanbe will have to test its people’s patience yet again. Iran may be willing to pay for Kyrgyzstan to play nice, but the initial ascent from China and the descent through the Rasht Valley will be by far the most costly aspects of the project. Iranian media already acknowledges this, and provides some decidedly low-ball figures. The Rogun stoppage shows just how far Tajikistan can go with this projects without massive foreign backing, which is, not far. Heavily-sanctioned Iran can’t possibly have the cash lying around for a huge up-front outlay.

Even if China could be enticed to cover the cost, the whole plan would run up against the US policy of ‘No Silk Roads Lead to Persia’. Despite the possibility that this particular railroad might be more valuable to Afghanistan than alternatives options to expand Uzbek or Turkmen spurs into Afghan territory, it seems quite likely that the US will veto any progress while US troops are on the ground. And after they are gone, will the investment be protected?

UN map of Asian railways. If the national borders were removed, one could probably still make out Afghanistan as the black hole between Central, South, and Southwestern Asian rail networks.

Iran is supposedly still in the feasibility study phase – a process that in this part of the world means “study just how great an idea this is”. Rail investment best addresses the need to move heavy, often low-value-added goods, in large bulk, and without a tight time schedule. Marble in Balkh? Oil in Faryab? Afghanistan’s now-legendary Angyak copper deposit would be far removed from the line. Realistic studies of the rail lines viability would have to measure the actual probability of success of such nascent ventures. They would also have to measure them against the next-best alternative, not against the status quo. In this case, Iran and China have an existing rail link through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Cutting across Afghanistan and Tajikistan would save some time. But containerized trucks can already do the same thing, and without the need to switch wheels three times. Without greatly increased demand for freight services between the countries involved, such a rail line may not make economic sense. But as Rogun shows, nation-saving mega projects are bigger than economics. They’re about national mobilization, national pride, and, perhaps, national distraction.


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This post was written by...

– author of 12 posts on Registan.net.

Myles G. Smith is a project manager, consultant, and independent analyst based in Central Asia. His writing appears regularly at EurasiaNet.org, the Jamestown Foundation, and the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute. He is currently based in Kyrgyzstan, has lived in Turkmenistan and Russia and worked throughout the former Soviet Union. In the process of his work, he regularly consults a wide range of experts, officials, activists, journalists, academics, diplomats and entrepreneurs in the region. He is proficient in Russian.

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{ 12 comments }

Anti-zionist July 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Iran is next super power in world

Nathan Hamm July 27, 2012 at 9:30 am

Well, yeah, that’s so obvious there’s no need to back that up at all.

Oscar/Aust. July 26, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Unfortunately, Netanyahu and Barak put Israelis in danger with their their bad tempers. Iran is already in control in many affairs around the world and has the capacity to teach Zionists a lesson that history will never forget.

Nathan Hamm July 27, 2012 at 9:31 am

Just today, Iran told me what to eat for breakfast…

Seriously, do you guys set up alerts for the word “Iran” and then just go spouting off marginally topical remarks about Iran and Israel?

Xenophon July 26, 2012 at 6:34 pm

The author obviously doesn’t like the idea of a China-Iran railway, but rather than making an openly anti-Chinese or anti-Iranian strategic argument, he instead uses the usual it-won’t-work pseudo-argument. If containerized trucks could truly “do the same thing” as railways then quite evidently, freight rail would be out of business. Come on, Smith, use some logic.

China is slowly putting in place a Eurasian strategic transportation network to bypass the US Navy-dominated Indian Ocean. Of course, it takes time and develops in fits and starts.

That Smith’s articles appear at the Jamestown Foundation should tell anyone enough about his motives to understand why he wants to dismiss the significance of the Chinese Eurasian transportation strategy.

Nathan Hamm July 27, 2012 at 9:32 am

Please elaborate on where in this article there is obvious distaste for the railway project. There is all kinds of opinionated content here at Registan. This isn’t it.

Point of fact: Freight rail on this route isn’t in business. If the point is to bypass Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, then yes, containerized trucking would be an easier way to accomplish this same goal.

jonson July 26, 2012 at 9:01 pm

Poor Smith, he think that after this stupid artilce all the people in the world will follow his recommendations….! Come on Smith!
People of this region know better what and how to do, they don’t need on your superficial ‘new Silk Road’ project…, just leave them alone and go back to your island….safely. It will be the best decision for you and your fellows from US and live there peacefully with your narrow minds.

Nathan Hamm July 27, 2012 at 9:36 am

Building railroads is a more elaborate version of that very same New Silk Road project.

yoh July 26, 2012 at 10:09 pm

us is a robber logic 。we are right for our country benfit

Will July 27, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Very interesting article. Thank you for the maps! Tajikistan is lobbying for the project out of desperation to bypass Uzbekistan and Iran is doing what older brothers do. I already read on Asia-plus where tajik government officials are trying to put the blame on Uzbekistan for lobbying the alternative route through Uzbekistan. They know Kyrgyzstan is more interested in China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran route so they can connect their North with the South Kyrgyzstan. Yet the idea is good on its own to distract the people with the new mega project given the apparent scapegoat nearby.

Andrew July 31, 2012 at 5:48 am

China and Iran actually use the same rail gauge, 1435 mm (standard gauge, as in the Middle East, Turkey, Europe, North America). The Central Asian republics use a different one, 1520 mm, the same as the whole former USSR (+Finland).

Pretty much all serious China – Iran plans are for a standard gauge line, which could share the tracks of any China – Aynak line. There would be no need for changing wheels (and transshipping containers at a break of gauge is probably easier anyway).

Union Pacific or Russian Railways might not agree that “containerized trucks can already do the same thing”…

Andrew August 2, 2012 at 1:34 am

Is there hard evidence that “Iran’s existing spur to Herat” has actually been completed? I try to keep an eye on the project, but the latest “on the ground” reports I’ve had suggest that while civils are well underway there has been no tracklaying, at least on the Afghan side of the border.

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