Iran-China Railroad – Tajikistan’s Latest Mega-Distraction?

With work essentially stopped at Rahmon’s marquee ‘project of the century’, including thousands of layoffs of construction workers who might be wishing they had gone to Russia this summer, time has arrived for Tajikistan to come up with a replacement nation-saving mega project. Perhaps this is why we are again hearing talk of a plan to build a railroad linking the country with China and Iran.

The line would run from Iran’s existing spur to Herat to southern Tajikistan, assumedly near the US-funded bridge at Nizhny Pyanzh, then proceed to Yavan, through the Rasht Valley to Kyrgyzstan’s Alai Valley, cross the Irkeshtam Pass and descend to Kashgar, in southwestern Chinese Xingjiang.

The project has been kicking around for years, though somehow has never gotten off the ground. Perhaps that somehow was the likely multi-billion dollar tab that no one is committed to picking up. Or the technical complications of building the line at high altitudes and through narrow river valleys. Or the fact that China, Iran, and the Central Asian republics all use different rail gauges. Or that existing lines already link Iran and Central Asia. And that Afghanistan is a war zone. And occasionally, so is the Rasht Valley.

All that aside, Iran and Tajikistan have started talking up the project again of late. Kyrgyz officials expressed no interest in the project as recently as June, and rightly so, it would only pass through a remote and sparsely populated valley. Then this month, Iran’s ambassador in Bishkek recently announced that Iran would pay for the stretch through Kyrgyzstan, which was swayed by the no-risk proposition. While any charity is generous, this stretch is short and almost entirely flat. The Tajik line would also not connect to Kyrgyzstan’s own nation-saving mega project, a rail line that would connect China and Uzbekistan across the Torugart Pass, north of Irkeshtam across an impenetrable range.

Kyrgyzstan has bandied that rail project around since at least the mid-90s, though Atambayev and Babanov have all but staked the country’s economic future on the idea. The two repeatedly insisted after repeated results-free trips to Beijing that ‘every issue related to the project is solved, except financing’. When talking about two threads of iron to cost Kyrgyzstan about 40% of a year’s GDP, financing is really the issue, is it not? Thus, Kyrgyzstan is left with two bad options: rails for minerals, or rails for tolls. Either Chinese enterprises would get privileged access to mineral concessions, or would be permitted to run the railroad to recoup the costs. Both options bring serious political risks for Bishkek, as I have argued in the past.

Tajikistan would have to offer China a similar deal. Like when Dushanbe unceremoniously gave away 1,100 sq km of mountainous territory to China in 2011, or when leases agricultural land to Chinese farming enterprises, Dushanbe will have to test its people’s patience yet again. Iran may be willing to pay for Kyrgyzstan to play nice, but the initial ascent from China and the descent through the Rasht Valley will be by far the most costly aspects of the project. Iranian media already acknowledges this, and provides some decidedly low-ball figures. The Rogun stoppage shows just how far Tajikistan can go with this projects without massive foreign backing, which is, not far. Heavily-sanctioned Iran can’t possibly have the cash lying around for a huge up-front outlay.

Even if China could be enticed to cover the cost, the whole plan would run up against the US policy of ‘No Silk Roads Lead to Persia’. Despite the possibility that this particular railroad might be more valuable to Afghanistan than alternatives options to expand Uzbek or Turkmen spurs into Afghan territory, it seems quite likely that the US will veto any progress while US troops are on the ground. And after they are gone, will the investment be protected?

Iran is supposedly still in the feasibility study phase – a process that in this part of the world means “study just how great an idea this is”. Rail investment best addresses the need to move heavy, often low-value-added goods, in large bulk, and without a tight time schedule. Marble in Balkh? Oil in Faryab? Afghanistan’s now-legendary Angyak copper deposit would be far removed from the line. Realistic studies of the rail lines viability would have to measure the actual probability of success of such nascent ventures. They would also have to measure them against the next-best alternative, not against the status quo. In this case, Iran and China have an existing rail link through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Cutting across Afghanistan and Tajikistan would save some time. But containerized trucks can already do the same thing, and without the need to switch wheels three times. Without greatly increased demand for freight services between the countries involved, such a rail line may not make economic sense. But as Rogun shows, nation-saving mega projects are bigger than economics. They’re about national mobilization, national pride, and, perhaps, national distraction.

This post was originally published by Registan, with full maps and links.

Borders Hardening throughout Central Asia in Anticipation of NATO Pullout

Kyrgyzstan’s Border Guards Service announced on May 9 that the United States will finance the construction of six facilities in Kyrgyzstan for use by Kyrgyz security forces. They will include a barracks, a command center for the Border Guards’ southern services and new checkpoints. The US Embassy confirmed the plans to build the facilities through CENTCOM, though no specifics were provided (paruskg.info, May 11).

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Southern Kyrgyzstan Tinderbox Awaits Next Spark

A recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report on tensions in Kyrgyzstan’s south has raised pointed questions about the country’s underlying stability. The ICG report, “Kyrgyzstan: Widening Ethnic Divisions in the South,” calls the current peace in Osh “superficial,” noting that “neither the Kyrgyz nor Uzbek community feels it can hold.” The ICG describes the central government as unwilling or unable to remove nationalist Osh Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov and engage in the long-term effort that would be required to mitigate mistrust and dislocation between the two communities.

Continue reading Southern Kyrgyzstan Tinderbox Awaits Next Spark

China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway Brings Political Risks

The below article originally appeared in the March 7, 2012 edition of the Central Asia and Caucasus Analyst, a bi-weekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

The signature infrastructure project of Kyrgyzstan’s new leadership is a 268 kilometer railroad line that would link China with Kyrgyzstan’s southern provinces and Uzbekistan. President Atambayev insists that Kyrgyzstan would profit greatly from inter-regional transit trade if the US$ 2 billion-plus line were built. Restrictions on Kyrgyzstan’s once lucrative practice of re-exporting Chinese goods to Russia and Kazakhstan have been increasingly curtailed by new Customs Union rules, leaving Bishkek searching for new sources of national income and employment. While the railroad would lower the costs for traders, its price tag in both monetary and political terms will not be insignificant.

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Is There a Motive Behind the Uzbekistan Rail Blast?

As our sister blog The Bug Pit reported this week, speculation is mounting that a November 17 “terrorist attack” that knocked out a rail line connecting Uzbekistan with southern Tajikistan may not be all the Uzbeks say it was. One doesn’t have to look hard to find a motive for sabotage. Certainly, the episode seems to have limited archrival Tajikistan’s ability to supply NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

For Uzbekistan, perhaps the most significant aspect of the rail line in question is its complete irrelevance to its own economy, and to its role as the hub of the Northern Distribution Network that is essential for supplying NATO troops. The damage occurred on a section of track after the NDN freight turns off to Afghanistan, in the desert before crossing into Tajikistan. Uzbekistan has no other use for this line and appears in no hurry to see it repaired.

Continue reading Is There a Motive Behind the Uzbekistan Rail Blast?