As is well known, the plans for the transport and economic integration of Eurasia are not confined to the Chinese New Silk Road Initiative (NSRI). The North-South International Transport Corridor (ITC) project is also of great importance. The main participants in the project are Russia, Iran, India, and Azerbaijan.
The ITC is expected to link India, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus through Russia with the countries of Europe and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The route includes points such as the Indian city-port of Mumbai, the Iranian Bandar Abbas, the capital of Azerbaijan Baku, and the Russian cities of Astrakhan, Moscow and St. Petersburg. The ITC will then be extended to as far as Northern Europe. It is expected that the cost and length of freight carriage between the above-mentioned regions should significantly be reduced, thus contributing to a significant increase in international trade on the Eurasian continent.
The North-South ITC Project has been on the drawing board since the late 1990s. In a sense, it is already functioning, as Iran is already quite actively shipping its goods through Azerbaijan to Russia. However, the North-South ITC is still far from being fully unleashed. For example, India and many countries in the Middle East still carry out most of their communication with Europe using a long sea route pasing through the Suez Canal.
The main advantage of the North-South ITC is that most of the journey is over land. It is quicker, cheaper, and safer than by sea. However, for the efficient transportation of large volumes of goods by land, it is more convenient to use railways. So far, there has been no suitable railway infrastructure, and a large part of the cargo is transported from Iran to Azerbaijan by road. This was probably one of the reasons why the North-South ITC has not yet been counted among the most important Eurasian routes. In recent years, however, the work on the unified railway system has increased noticeably throughout the ITC. All of its new sites are being created and put into service.
Iran and Azerbaijan have made significant contributions to the project. To connect their railway systems, the two countries decided to build an Astara-Rasht-Qazvin railway. The total length of the road under construction is almost 360 km. The road will soon be ready for use. The road to the Azeri town of Astara is beginning from the same river along which the Iranian-Azerbaijani border runs. The road crosses the Astara River on a new, specifically built bridge and reaches the Iranian town of Astara, which has the same name as its Azerbaijani neighbour. The route goes through the Iranian towns of Rasht and Qazvin in Northern Iran, and then connects to the main Iranian railway network. The road will be used as a vital corridor for delivering passengers and goods to the port of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf Coast, a strategically important Iranian transport hub. Sea traffic from all over Asia may be shipped from there.
The furthest point of the North-South ITC is the Indian port of Mumbai, one of the most populated cities in the world. Mumbai is a significant economic centre, not only of India, but of Asia as a whole. The city is located on the coast of the Arabian Sea, and is one of the main ports in the region at the crossroads of many international routes.
In early March 2017, a test run of the Astara-Astara section was held. Although this is not the largest section of the Astara-Rasht-Qazvin Road, its opening is of great political importance. The commencement of the operation of the Astara-Astara railway crossing the Iranian-Azerbaijani border testifies to the mutual confidence of the two countries and the lack of significant differences among them, including on the issue of the Iranian province of southern Azerbaijan, the inhabitants of which periodically call for secession from Iran. It was not accidental that the Astara-Astara route was tested in conjunction with the visit to Iran of the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
During the visit, the Head of Azerbaijan met with the President of Iran Hassan Rouhani. The negotiations mainly included discussions on Iran-Azerbaijan cooperation in the field of transport. New documents relating to railway construction were signed. At the end of June 2017, the Iranian Ministry of Roads and Urban Development reported that the Qazvin-Rasht section would soon be ready for use. It is expected to be launched in late summer 2017. Construction of the Qazvin-Rasht Road began in 2009. The project for the creation of this 205 km stretch of road was cost-intensive. The road runs through terrain with complex topography and required a large number of bridges and tunnels. The Qazvin-Rasht Highway is already being called the most sophisticated railway project in Iran.
In July 2017, two companies—Iranian Railways and Azerbaijan Railways—signed an agreement to build a large railway terminal in the Iranian Astara through which Azerbaijan intends to transit its goods in large quantities. The Azerbaijani side is prepared to invest USD60 million into this project. At the same time, the media reported an early signing of the Iran-Azerbaijan Treaty on the construction of the Astara-Rasht section, the missing link of the Astara-Qazvin-Rasht Road in Iran. The construction is expected to cost more than USD1 billion. Azerbaijan intends to advance Iran a credit of USD500 million. The creation of the Astara-Rasht Road will be the last step in establishing a connection between the Azerbaijani and Iranian railway systems. This will be one of the most important events in the history of the North-South ITC project.
The rekindling of India’s interest in the project could be viewed as an indication of the apparently successful progress of the ITC. In July 2017, an Indian parliamentary delegation visited Moscow to participate in a meeting of the Russian-Indian Inter-Parliamentary Commission. Following the meeting, the Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament of India Sumitra Mahajan stated that Russia and India should develop cooperation in various spheres, including the North-South ITC project.
There are many factors that could contribute to the North-South ITC becoming one of the most important transport arteries of Eurasia. First, it is the high cost and duration of the traditional Asia–Europe sea route. Second, it is the current instability in the Middle East, which is posing more dangers to sea traffic passing through the Suez Canal. The third factor is the so-far steady development of the Chinese New Silk Road project.
Despite all the benefits of NSHP, many of the major players in the Asian region (primarily India) fear a rapid rise of Chinese influence. At the same time, they are aware of the need for the economic and transport integration of Eurasia. Consequently, they are rushing to find or create alternative transport corridors and NSHP. The North-South ITC is well suited to this role. It is possible that the creation of an efficient railway system throughout its entire length will act as the last point on the line, after which it will gain the well-deserved popularity.
Dmitry Bokarev, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”