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Amid sanctions, Iran looks east

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani holds hands with Indian President Ramnath Kovind and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Rouhani's ceremonial reception in New Delhi, India, 17 February 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi).

In Brief

Tehran has taken a significant step toward creating a multilateral framework for Eurasian security cooperation by convening its first ‘Regional Security Dialogue’ summit in late September 2018 with deputy national security advisers from Russia, China and India. In the face of US-led international sanctions, Tehran's efforts to develop multilateral security cooperation are providing a framework for Asia's giants to partner with Iran. 


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By virtue of its geography and history, Iran requires no ‘pivot’ to Asia. Persian empires — in their various forms from antiquity through medieval times — were quintessential Eurasian powers. Iran’s ‘Look East’ policy under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–13) sought to embrace the East in the context of crippling sanctions from the West. But despite robust commercial relations with both Russia and China, Tehran struggled to bring Moscow and Beijing into alignment with its anti-US policies.

Anticipating US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared a policy of ‘preferring East to West’ in February 2018. Tehran’s new approach — creating a multilateral framework for collective security cooperation involving Russia, China and India — seems to be proving far more successful.

For Russia, China and India — all of which face threats of low-intensity conflict from various local and transnational Sunni extremist groups — Shiite-dominated Iran is viewed as a natural partner in combatting terrorism. Yet, despite ostensibly devoted to combatting terrorism in Afghanistan, the Regional Security Dialogue’s declaration of points reveals competition over the emerging architecture of Eurasian commercial connectivity to be the overarching impetus for multilateral security cooperation. The declaration defines one of the objectives of cooperation to be ‘economic and commercial development’ involving ‘establishing secure transit routes using existing infrastructure as well as creating new infrastructures’.

For Beijing’s massive Eurasian commercial route, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Iran provides a crucial link for a China–Europe rail that does not traverse Russian territory. China’s current plan utilises the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway and requires ferrying cargo across the Caspian Sea from Central Asia to Azerbaijan. An Iranian rail link would offer a contiguous and more cost-effective solution. Using Iran’s north–south rail links, it could create a vital vertical axis connecting China’s main East–West corridor to the Middle East and the Arabian Sea.

Beijing is already creating a similar north–south vertical axis with its US$46 billion China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that aims to connect the Chinese-built deep-sea port in the Gwadar region of Pakistan to Kashgar in China’s restive Xinjiang province. In contrast to CPEC, a China–Iran corridor offers the added benefit of direct overland connections with the Middle East.

A China–Iran corridor would also face fewer security and engineering challenges than CPEC. CPEC runs through Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, historically the stronghold of Taliban militancy, and Balochistan, home to ethno-nationalist unrest. Rail construction needs to cross the formidable Karakoram Mountain range too. The China–Iran corridor would not traverse such a dangerous security environment and would simply involve upgrading present rail links to high-speed rail with uniform, standard gauge tracks.

During January and February 2016, the first China–Iran cargo train made its maiden journey from China’s eastern Zhejiang province south of Shanghai to Iran in just 14 days, beating the time of the maritime route from Shanghai to Bandar Abbas by two-thirds. Replacing Soviet-era, non-standard gauge tracks in Central Asia with high-speed rail would likely reduce travel time even further.

Likewise, India regards Iran as the critical transit link for creating a commercial corridor for Indian Ocean–Europe trade. New Delhi’s drive to construct a deep-sea port at the Iranian city of Chabahar, along with commercial transportation corridors running northward, is motivated by its economic rivalry with Beijing. India’s answer to China’s BRI is New Delhi’s grand International North–South Transit Corridor (INSTC) initiative.

With India’s overland access to Central Asia blocked by Pakistan, the Chabahar deep-sea port and the INSTC running northward through Iran and Afghanistan will provide New Delhi with vital access to Central Asian, Russian and ultimately European markets. The Chabahar port, 72 kilometres west of the Chinese-built port at Gwadar, will serve as the Indian Ocean outlet for the INSTC that is estimated to be 30 per cent more cost effective than the traditional maritime route via the Red Sea, Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea.

Russia shares similar interests in a north–south corridor with India, but its most immediate concern is to secure Moscow’s influence over the South Caucasus and Caspian Sea Basin. The success of Turkey’s energy and transportation partnership with Azerbaijan has enabled Ankara to expand its influence in the South Caucasus and extend it further into Turkmenistan and the other Central Asian republics.

The potential expansion of Ankara’s influence among the Turkic peoples of the South Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as within the territorial borders of Russia and China, presents an enduring challenge for Russia and China. In the competition for influence in the southern rim of the Eurasian landmass, Iran is an indispensable partner for Russia, China and India. Tehran’s efforts have laid the foundation for deepening multilateral security cooperation with Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi.

Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University and an affiliated scholar with the Center for Strategic Studies at Başkent University in Ankara, Turkey (Başkent-SAM).

2 responses to “Amid sanctions, Iran looks east”

  1. It would be wonderful if Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan start growing at East Asian rates and pulled the non-oil producing Middle East along. This would surely bring lasting peace to the Middle East and help end the refugee crisis facing the world. It may even end terrorism!

  2. The writer seems to have his own alternative versions of facts, which he needs to refer or discuss this subject. First of all the writer emphasized ‘economic and commercial development’ referring to the Regional Security Dialogue’s declaration points. Yet there wasn’t any point in the declaration which focused on ‘economic and commercial development’.

    Secondly the writer mentioned “the first China–Iran cargo train made its maiden journey from China’s eastern Zhejiang province south of Shanghai to Iran in just 14 days” he forgot to mention “The 10,399 km journey via Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan” 10 thousand + journey and involvement of another 2 countries.

    Thirdly the writer clearly seems to be writing for the account of his ‘affiliations’ focusing on funded unrest which was successfully controlled in KPK province and the bunch of militants in Baluchistan funded by India are being curbed successfully. Note that Indian funding and support aimed at creating unrest in Baluchistan through a bunch of militants by exploiting their tribal grievances was revealed by a serving Indian Navy Officer working undercover as a businessmen in Iran for the Indian Intelligence Agency (RAW) who was captured by Pakistani Security forces in Baluchistan.

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