While the United States increases pressure to isolate Iran, Tehran is pressing ahead to build a highway into neighboring Afghanistan. Iran, which is seeking to establish itself as a main trade route, sees Afghanistan as a potential land link between the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, and China.
Prague, 8 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Representatives of two Iranian companies this week arrived in Tajikistan to assist in the construction of the 5-kilometer Anzab tunnel, providing a direct link between Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe and the northern city of Khujand. Tehran is giving $31 million in loans and grants to Tajikistan to complete the work by 2006.
The new link will bypass the existing route via Uzbekistan, which requires a transit visa for Tajiks traveling from one part of their homeland to another, and sometimes closes the border without notice, creating traffic chaos and trade disruptions.
Iranian Road and Transportation Minister Ahmad Khorram mentioned last month that the Anzab tunnel is part of a broad transport blueprint, in which Afghanistan plays a central role. The plan consists of establishing a transit route running from Iran through Herat in western Afghanistan, Mazar-e Sharif and Sherkhan Bandar in northern Afghanistan to Tajikistan, and from there up to China.
Mohammad-Reza Djalili is a professor at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. He told RFE/RL that Iran has been developing several transport plans since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when the possibility arose to become a major transit country.
"There are at least three projects: the Caspian oil-and-gas-pipeline project; the so-called north-south corridor linking Northern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Iran, the Persian Gulf, and then India [by sea]. Iran's [road] plan in Afghanistan is in keeping with a third project, the so-called new Silk Road. It is a question of making Iran a transit country for two Central Asian states, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, via Afghanistan, and then to extend this route to China," Djalili said.
This year in June, the Uzbek and Tajik presidents, Islam Karimov and Imomali Rakhmonov, signed two separate trilateral transport agreements in Tehran with their Iranian and Afghan counterparts, Mohammad Khatami and Hamid Karzai, envisaging the construction of land routes. Accordingly, Iran would provide access to international routes, while Afghanistan would connect Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to Iran.
Central Asia already is connected to Iran's highway and rail networks via Turkmenistan. However, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan seek to access Iran's developed transportation infrastructure and the Persian Gulf by a shorter land link through Afghanistan.
Tajik Transport Ministry spokesman Mohammad Yusuf Shodiev explained what the completion of road links with Afghanistan means for the region: "Passing from Tajikistan to Afghanistan, and from there to Iran, would certainly be another move to break Tajikistan's isolation. All the Central Asian countries are trying to build as many international-standard highways as possible between their nations."
Iran's projects to improve Afghan roads and link them to its own transport system include the 125-kilometer highway connecting the Iranian city of Dogharun to Herat, and the Milak bridge over the Helmand River between Iran and Afghanistan. Iranian Minister Ahmad Khorram stated earlier in June that his country has allocated $43 million for the former and between $3 million and $4 million for the latter.
On its own territory, Iran is to upgrade the road between Milak and the Iranian port of Chabahar, on the Persian Gulf, to facilitate international trade. Afghanistan is to receive the right to use the port of Chabahar with a 90 percent discount on port fees, except for oil tankers.
According to Hooman Peimani, a Geneva-based independent consultant, the connection of the Uzbek and Tajik road infrastructure to Iran through Afghanistan will not translate into a major change in the region's economy, as the two Central Asian republics have very limited industrial production and exports.
However, in the long run, the connection of Iranian and Chinese roads via Afghanistan will turn Iran into a major intersection of trade, connecting Europe to China's fast-growing economy and 1.3 billion-strong domestic market.
"Iran, India, and Russia have created the north-south corridor to connect Europe to Asia via land routes and also sea routes. Connecting China and Afghanistan to the Iranian routes in the long run will help the north-south corridor to become even more interesting for all parties in Asia and Europe, because that will give them, particularly the Europeans, a land access to China through the shortest possible way. And of course it also gives the Chinese the possibility to try to decrease their dependency on the American market," Peimani said.
Peimani noted that China's expanding international trade could generate billions of dollars in transit fees for Iranians, while uplifting their regional status and political influence. It will also help stabilize Afghanistan.
"In the long run, if the connections become reliable and Iran conducts huge international transactions to and from China or the Central Asian countries via that road, that operation would generate a huge amount of income for Afghanistan in terms of transit fees," Peimani said.
More generally, Peimani pointed out, multilateral transport agreements have the potential to significantly expand regional cooperation to deal with common concerns. These include peace and security, the two major prerequisites for economic prosperity for the entire region. However, Peimani added, this is all dependant the actual implementation of the agreements, for which specific dates are yet to be announced.
Djalili sees three obstacles -- technical, financial, and political -- to the implementation of Iran's road projects: "First of all, there are technical obstacles: the digging of north-south tunnels in Tajikistan requires, for instance, sophisticated methods. Then there is a financial dimension: Iran has relatively limited [financial] means, although it has agreed to invest in Afghanistan and Tajikistan to improve transport infrastructures. There is also a political obstacle, owing to Iran's isolation on the international stage and to its very bad relations with Washington, which has increased its presence in the region."
Furthermore, Afghanistan's continued instability means the roads will not translate into an immediate jackpot. Unknown attackers killed six Afghan soldiers and the driver of a U.S.-based aid group in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday (6 August) night.