Tajikistan bids to open rail route to Iran

By bne IntelliNews March 27, 2012

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

Tajikistan has inked a deal with Iran and Afghanistan on the construction of a new railway that would boost the landlocked Central Asian republic's trade and investment prospects by offering access to Persian Gulf ports. The project clearly faces high security risks however.

An agreement on the railway was signed by the presidents of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan at a summit in Dushanbe, also attended by the Pakistani president, on March 25. No announcement has yet been made about the timing of the project or its expected cost. A statement from the Tajikistani presidential office issued on March 26 simply says that the three presidents reached an understanding on "how to cooperate more productively to accelerate construction of a railway from Iran to Tajikistan through Afghanistan."

Another statement, also published on the presidential website, called for preliminary work on the planned China-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan railway to be speeded up, and for the railway to be linked to the Iranian and Pakistani railway networks.

Tajikistan's sole international rail connection currently is to northern neighbour Uzbekistan, at the very edge of the former Soviet railway network. This line runs from Moscow via Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to Dushanbe and south Tajikistan.

However, this route is often problematic for Tajikistan because of the ongoing dispute between Dushanbe and Tashkent over the use of the region's water and energy resources. Freight trains are frequently held up for several months at the border, a situation that has worsened as Uzbekistan is increasingly using its blockade as a bargaining tool to put pressure on Tajikistan to abandon its plan to build the Roghun dam.

In a further twist, reports emerged from Uzbekistan in November that a railway bridge near the Tajik and Afghan borders had been destroyed in an apparent terrorist attack. Reports later published on Uzbek opposition websites described the damage as inconsistent with a bombing, and led to speculation that the bridge had deliberately been dismantled. The bridge was of little importance to Uzbekistan, but its destruction is immensely inconvenient on the Tajik side of the border as it cuts off the main link from south Tajikistan to the outside world.

Building a rail link south to Iran would thus remove Tajikistan's dependence on this unreliable route, as well as opening access to Persian Gulf ports for both imports and exports. The country's main exports are aluminium, which is produced by its largest company Tajikistan Aluminium Company (Talco), and cotton. The Soviet-era decision to build the Talco smelter in Tajikistan, which has no domestic supplies of bauxite was based on its proximity to a large hydropower plant. However, since independence, Tajikistan has had to rely on imports of bauxite.

In terms of road transport, the main transit route from the north to Tajikistan is also via Uzbekistan, although the country also has road links to Kyrgyzstan in the north and Afghanistan in the south. The bulk of Tajikistan's consumer goods imports are from China, and Beijing has invested billions of dollars into the country's road infrastructure, which had been neglected almost completely since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

An increasing volume of trade is also flowing between Tajikistan and Pakistan, which are separated by a narrow strip of Afghan territory. In fact, roads from Dushanbe to Tajikistan's southern border crossings are rapidly being eroded due to the volume of goods being transported.

While Tajikistan was incorporated into first the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union, and Russia remains its largest trading partner, the country has close historical and cultural ties to both Iran and Afghanistan. In recent years, Teheran has made efforts to increase its political and economic links with Tajikistan.

The talks on March 25 also encompassed plans to build energy infrastructure across Afghanistan, which would allow Iranian gas to be exported to Tajikistan, which again is reliant on Uzbekistan for most of its natural gas imports. There are further plans to export drinking water from Tajikistan to Iran and to connect the three countries' electricity grids to allow the export of Tajik electricity.

However, the ambitious plans will depend on the security situation in Afghanistan and Kabul's questionable capability to maintain peace and stability as the withdrawal of international troops from the war-torn country continues. There are numerous plans around to build infrastructure across the strategically placed country, but they have proved difficult to carry to fruition. Tajikistan's Central Asian peer Turkmenistan has discovered that first hand in its struggle to build the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline.

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