The presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran have opened a long-anticipated railroad link connecting landlocked Central Asia to the Persian Gulf.
On the Turkmen-Iranian border, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan, Hassan Rouhani of Iran, and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan donned white gloves to bolt together a final section of track that was symbolically colored gold, the Associated Press reported, inaugurating the last stage of the freight link that they hope will herald a boom in trade between the three Caspian littoral states.
Highlighting those expectations, the first cargo to cross the border between Turkmenistan and Iran on December 3 was a wagon-load of wheat from Kazakhstan.
The line – which carries only freight but may carry passengers later – has an initial capacity of 5 million tons per year, projected to rise to 12 million tons. Forecasts suggest the new line could triple trilateral trade in the short term from 3 million to 10 million tons, and double it again by 2020 to 20 million.
The launch of the link was a “milestone for the entire Eurasian continent,” Nazarbayev said ahead of the inauguration, while Berdymukhamedov said it would bring prosperity to the whole region. Rouhani matched the hyperbole, describing his “unbounded joy” at seeing the connection open.
The buoyancy of the mood was encouraged by cautious hopes that progress is being made toward the lifting of international sanctions against Iran, as negotiations continue with the international community about Tehran’s disputed nuclear program.
The 930-kilometer rail link, running from Ozen in energy-rich western Kazakhstan through Turkmenistan to Gorgan in northwestern Iran, will speed up cargo transit by cutting 600 kilometers off the journey on the existing route from Beyneu in western Kazakhstan to Mashhad in northern Iran.
The new link opens up access to the Middle East and its ports through Iran for Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and to China and the Pacific Ocean through Kazakhstan for Iran and Turkmenistan.
The Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan section of the line opened last year, leading to a 38-percent boost in bilateral trade in the first eight months of this year, Nazarbayev said during a visit to Turkmenistan the day before the inauguration.
Astana and Tehran are now hoping for a similar trade boost, in line with a pledge Nazarbayev and Rouhani made in September to reverse a decline in bilateral trade (which dropped 8.5 percent in 2013, to just $620 million).
Kazakhstan hopes to use the new railway to up grain exports to Iran fivefold, to 2.5 million tons, and is planning to open a grain terminal near the terminus of the new railway at Gorgan (Kazakhstan already operates one grain terminal in Iran, at the Caspian port of Amirabad).
Sanctions-hit Russia has also expressed an interest in using the railroad to boost its trade with Iran, Economic Development Minister Aleksey Ulyukayev has said.