Iraq Ties Itself to China Via Belt & Road Rail Links Between Basra and Iran’s Shalamcheh

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  • Route helps solve a regional bottleneck and links Iraq to China and Iran to the Mediterranean

A short, yet vital 30km railway line that will link the Iraqi city of Basra to the Iranian border city of Shalamcheh has been described as “historic”, showcasing a new era of Iran/Iraqi detente, linking Iraq to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and establishing a channel between Iran and Syria.

Although the line would run for only 30km and costs around US$150 million, it will be the only rail connection between the two countries and would vastly improve communications in the wider region by connecting China’s Belt and Road lines to Iraq and bringing Iran closer to Syria.

The office of the Iraqi prime minister stated last week that “Negotiations with Iran to build a railway between Basra and Shalamjah have reached their final stages, and we have signed 15 agreements and memorandums of understanding with Jordan and Egypt regarding energy and transportation lines.”

Funding for the project, which was approved by the Iraqi cabinet in April, will come from Iran’s Mostazafan Foundation, which is described as a “semi-government charity”.

The route was first announced in November 2018, when Islamic Republic of Iran Railways (RAI) announced that it hoped to build a line between the two cities.

The railway is part of Syria’s reconstruction deal, and is partially aimed along with trade, to promote religious tourism between Iran, Iraq, and Syria. However, it is not without opponents, with Syrian opposition parties believing it will entrench Iranian influence and provide the logistic services necessary for enhancing Iranian influence in in Iraq and Syria. Iranian Muslims are Shia while Iraq’s are Shia and Sunni. Syria is also a Shia / Sunni mix and there are concerns about Shia influences spreading further and diminishing Sunni and other Muslim sects, as well as the small Jewish and Christian populations.

Others are more upbeat, with Iraj Masjidi, Tehran’s ambassador to Baghdad, stating that the rail line could make Iraq a regional transport hub.

He said Iraq could become one of the “largest transit countries in the region”, and that “Iraq can be connected to China through the railways of Iran and increase its strategic importance in the region”.

Masjidi also suggested that the rail line could lead to an expansion of Basra’s port facilities. He said, “Now only small ships can dock in this port, but the development and equipping of the port along the dredging of the Arvand River can change the situation and help the port prosperity and ‘Transit Iraq’.”

Iranian President Rouhani said the Shalamcheh-Basra railway will connect Iran to Iraq, Syria, and the Mediterranean, causing a fundamental change in the region.

“Iran’s Khorramshahr, Abadan, and Shalamcheh are located in a very important strategic area,” he said “Due to the agreement made with the Iraqi government on connecting Shalamcheh to Basra, we will be able to witness a fundamental change in this region. “This will be a very big change, and Iran’s railway will be connected to Iraq and Syria, and to the Mediterranean.”

The link will also make it possible for Iran to send various commodities such as consumer goods, construction materials, and minerals through the railway from Tehran to Shalamcheh and then to Basra and finally to Qaem (Abu Kamal) on the border with Syria.

Iran and Syria have been taking major steps for the expansion of their mutual trade ties. The two sides have exchanged numerous trade delegations and Iranian private companies are investing in various fields of the Syrian economy like providing construction materials especially cement and working on several reconstruction projects, several in conjunction with Chinese contractors.

The Head of the Iran-Syria Joint Chamber of Commerce Keyvan Kashefi, has stated that the value of Iran’s trade with Syria will reach US$1 billion during the coming twelve months.

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