China’s Railway Network: A roadmap to change Iran’s status quo in the Gulf

Neha Mishra, Research Intern, ICS

The perception of the Persian Gulf countries about Iran has been built across two time frames – Pre and Post-Islamic revolution. The Pre-Islamic revolution Iran was seen as a preserver of regional stability and an agent of the USA in the region. Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-79) played an important role in this context as he tried to dismantle every challenge to the regional stability whether it was Iraq’s regional hegemonic aspirations or any rebellion unrest in the Gulf monarchies, along with sustaining US legitimacy in the Persian Gulf. Ironically, the Islamic or Iranian Revolution (1979) led to a revolutionary wave in the other Gulf monarchies that made Gulf rulers perceive Iran as a threat to the regional solidity and, weaken the US-Iran ties as well. The events including- Islamic Revolution, Iran-Iraq war (1980), Gulf crisis (1990-91), and regional conflicts or disputes over Abu Musa, Tunb Islands, annual Hajj pilgrimage, and so on, contributed further to change the relation between Iran and Gulf states.

The Post-Islamic revolution Iran began to be perceived as a threat to the Gulf security, despite all the efforts made by President Muhammad Khatami and President Hassan Rouhani including the JCPOA agreement, to bring back the pre-revolution status of Iran. Broadly speaking, the securitization of Iran in the region has been the outcome of two developments: – a) the US-Israel Alliance that portrayed Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to the regional security; b) the insecurity of the neighbors about Iran, having a high amount of reserves and overpowering them. The regional security, peace, and cooperation are imperative for the domestic stability and economic recovery of Iran, but the above-mentioned developments had made it difficult for Iran to resolve the issues with its Gulf neighbors.

In this context, it could be argued that being a part of China’s BRI railway network could help Iran not only in establishing itself as a trade hub for the region, but also to boost its bilateral connection with the neighbors, thereby restoring its preserver status.

Iran became an integral part of the Chinese BRI program in 2016 when President Xi Jinping declared his intentions to help Iran in the facilitation of long-term peace and stability in the Middle East, claiming that Chinese planning to build railway network connectivity with the region will certainly improve the regional integration of the region as well.

The interest of China in the Persian Gulf region evolved majorly due to its geostrategic and geopolitical significance. The involvement of China in the Gulf region increased further during the 1970s to counteract the augmented Soviet presence in the Indian Ocean region, since Gulf is connected to the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran with domination over the Strait consequently became geopolitically important for China. Furthermore, Iran’s uneasy relationship with the USA and the strategic interest of India in Iran were the other factors that shaped Sino-Iran interactions.

The opportunity to be a part of BRI came as an advantage for Iran when it declared the plan to expand its railway network and connectivity to the Gulf neighbors as well as the other powerful actors. The Railway Restructuring/ Revolution plan of Iran invited major foreign investors including China, India, Russia, and others to participate in the progress. The Projects like- International North-South-Transport Corridor (INSTC), Eastern corridor, and Ashgabat agreement will connect Iran to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Gulf country Oman, but might not contribute enough to change the regional equations of Iran. Chinese BRI railway connectivity project, on the other hand, is more likely to facilitate the geo-strategies of Iran in the Persian Gulf. For instance- in 2016, the first freight (Cargo) train was launched to transport goods in bulk between Iran and China and this developed the chances of turning Iran into a central hub of the Eurasian region. The hopes of connectivity continued to develop with launches of second, third, and fourth train services from 2016 to 2018, connecting China to Tehran passing through Central Asian countries and former Soviet Union Republics as well.

Besides these freight trains, Chinese Railway Engineering Corporation has approved loans for two important railway networks- a) The Tehran-Qom-Isfahan railway network- a $1.2 billion loan agreement on 400km double-tracked railway lines, to connect these three cities of Iran to develop Iran’s transporting capacity and speed, b) The Urumqi-Tehran-Mashhad railway network- this route will start from Urumqi (China), passing through Yining and Almaty (Kazakhstan), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Tashkent and Samarkand (Uzbekistan), Ashgabat (Turkmenistan), then crosses Tehran to reach Mashhad (Afghanistan). This project will help China as well as Iran to deal with the incompatibility of the Persian Gulf neighbors since the benefits attached to the networks will certainly magnetize Gulf monarchies towards Iran as well as BRI railway projects. In addition, the Chinese railway networks being a gauge for its Silk route plan have the efficacy to improve the regional solidity and interaction for Iran. For instance:- the proposed Khorramshahr-Basra Railway network between Iraq and Iran is receiving aid from China, considering it as a potential route to connect Silk Road with regional rail system of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, as Basra is only 154 km away from the GCC country, Kuwait that would extend the connectivity further. As the Chinese railway project in Iran will not only make Iran a giant crossroad of the trade routes but also in boosting its economic as well as regional connectivity, thus largely viewed as a win-win collaboration.

However, the outspread of the Covid-19 Pandemic in the Iranian holy city of Qom has halted the work of railway network projects. On the one hand, there has been a considerable increase in the anti-Chinese sentiments in Iran, with a certain section of populace claiming that Iran contracted the virus in lieu of the economic and trade support from China. The spread of the virus has also affected the somewhat improving relations of Iran with the Gulf countries, as reports allege that Iranian travelers had spread the virus to these countries. While on the other hand, the unwillingness of majority Iranian politicians to accept Chinese workers/ travelers as a source of the virus, due to the importance of China to Iran is also noteworthy. Moreover, the latest removal of India from the Chabahar-Zahedian line project citing continuous delay in the funding is going to fuel up the Sino-Iran interactions, as the involvement of India in the Chabahar Project remained a critical concern of China and challenge to its Gwadar port project in Iran.

The BRI railway network has the potential of not only bridging the infrastructure and connectivity gap at the global level, but also at the regional level for Iran. However, Iran should not be excessively dependent on China, as it can lead to a situation reminiscent of pre-revolution era when it shared a skewed power dynamic with the USA. Moreover, China has certain unilateral goals through the BRI railway network and any conflicting stance of Iran can be a major setback to achieving its regional aspirations.

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