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Afghanistan counts days for milestone opening of Iran railway link

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Iranian and Afghan flags flutter in the air as workers lay the track at a section of the Khaf-Herat railway, connecting Iran and Afghanistan.

A 200 km railway line, long touted as the sole viable option to build Afghanistan’s economy, will come to operation in the next couple of weeks, connecting the Afghan city of Herat to Mashhad in Iran and on to Turkey.

Afghanistan has almost no functioning railways, where there is less than 25 km of track in the entire country. The Afghan section of the Khaf-Herat railway built with Iran includes 148 km of track which will open a new chapter in domestic freight and passenger transportation. It will reduce the cost of moving goods across the region to a fraction of that of highway transport.

The railway will stretch to Chabahar in southeast Iran, boosting Afghanistan’s trade and bringing in its mining sector from the cold to exploit billions of dollars in untapped mineral reserves.

High ranking officials from Iran and Afghanistan will gather at their joint border to open the line by the end of the current Iranian month in about two weeks, Iran’s Minister of Roads and Urban Development Mohammad Eslami said last week.  

“With the opening of the railway line, easier conditions have been created for the transportation of goods, so we hope that this issue will have positive effects on trade between Iran and Afghanistan,” head of Iran-Afghanistan Joint Chamber of Commerce Hossein Salimi said Tuesday.

“Freight transportation by train to Afghanistan will cost exporters less than freight transportation by truck, while delays in freight transportation by truck, such as delays at customs and delays in transporting goods from Iranian trucks to Afghan trucks will decrease,” he added.

According to Salimi, Iran’s exports to Afghanistan are estimated to reach $2.7 billion by the end of the current Persian year in March 2021.  

Afghanistan under occupation

Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest countries, some 19 years after the US invasion. Its main products are dried and fresh fruits, and carpets, which amount to a fraction of illegal opium estimated at some $2 billion by the International Monetary Fund. 

Afghan men sit in front of supply trucks carrying containers for export at the Customhouse in Jalalabad, Afghanistan May 14, 2018. (Photo by Reuters)

Projects such as the railway through Iran is believed to put a major dent in the illicit opium trade and reduce Afghanistan's reliance on foreign aid which is tied to heavy deployment of troops from the US, Europe and elsewhere.   

According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the top US government watchdog, billions of dollars poured into Afghanistan trickle into the hands of militants and fuel corruption in the country.

The US lost approximately $19 billion to waste, fraud, and abuse in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2018, SIGAR said in a report in October.

Curiously, the US government is not opposed to the railway line. It has granted an exception to certain US sanctions, allowing India’s participation in Chabahar’s development as part of the new transportation corridor designed to boost Afghanistan’s economy and ship non-sanctionable goods, like food and medicines, to the country.

The United States also allows Afghanistan to continue importing petroleum products from Iran, which are vital for the war-torn country’s growth and humanitarian relief.

Mineral wealth

US President Donald Trump has expressed an interest in Afghanistan’s massive mineral resources which India has already won the rights to exploit, including an iron mine. New Delhi seeks to use the railroad to Chabahar to export iron ore from the Hajigak mine in central Afghanistan.

A United States Geological Survey study has estimated potential value of Afghanistan’s mineral deposits as much as $1 trillion. However, Afghan officials have hinted at figures three times larger, citing new geological studies.

Gold, silver and platinum are some of the precious elements identified in Afghanistan but the country has also been labeled as the potential “Saudi Arabia of lithium”, the raw material used in phone and electric car batteries.

Furthermore, the country has significant quantities of iron ore, uranium, zinc, tantalum, bauxite, coal, natural gas and copper which is increasingly becoming rare across the globe.

In August 2017, Reuters said Trump was eyeing Afghanistan's mineral wealth to help pay for the US war that has cost hundreds of billions of dollars. 

The US is not alone in seeking a piece of the cake in Afghanistan. Former German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had said his country was interested in Afghanistan’s large deposits of lithium.

China acquired a 30-year lease on the Mes Aynak copper mine for around $3 billion in 2008 but the project has been plagued by delays due to contractual wrangling.

Iran's reconstruction efforts 

Iran’s approach to Afghanistan, however, is absolutely different. The two countries share historical and cultural ties and Iran has been hosting millions of Afghan refugees and immigrants who fled the Soviet–Afghan war, its ensuing civil war, and the US war in Afghanistan. 

The Islamic Republic has also spent millions of dollars on development and reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. It has built hundreds of kilometers of highway, and railroad and dams over the last eight years, paving the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road.

The new Silk Road is a trillion-dollar overland and maritime trade network spearheaded by the Chinese government as part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative announced in 2013 to promote trade with Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia.

Neighbors interested in joining railway

Landlocked countries have always tried to access open seas. Afghanistan’s neighbors have indicated an interest in linking with the Khaf-Herat railway line to send cargoes to and from Iran’s Persian Gulf ports.  

Uzbekistan and Afghanistan have signed an agreement to extend a railroad connecting the two countries to eventually give Uzbekistan a direct link to sea ports. Tashkent is interested in extending that line to Herat for a gateway to Iran.

Tajikistan also wants to construct a railway through Afghanistan to Iran and build an “energy line” across the three countries to supply Iranian oil products and gas, as well as to link the electricity grids of the three countries.   

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