Iran in Chinese Projects

New York Times
Iran in Chinese Projects

For millenniums, Iran has prospered as a trading hub linking East and West. Now, that role is set to expand in coming years as China unspools its “One Belt, One Road” project, which promises more than $1 trillion in infrastructure investment — bridges, rails, ports and energy — in over 60 countries across Europe, Asia and Africa. Iran, historically a crossroads, is strategically at the center of those plans.

The New York Times reports in its article For China’s Global Ambitions, ‘Iran Is at the Center of Everything’ that in eastern Iran, Chinese workers are busily modernizing one of the country’s major rail routes, standardizing gauge sizes, improving the track bed and rebuilding bridges, with the ultimate goal of connecting Tehran to Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. Much the same is happening in western Iran, where railroad crews are working to link the capital to Turkey and, eventually, to Europe. Other rail projects will connect Tehran and Mashhad with deepwater ports in the country’s south.

Once dependent on Beijing during the years of international isolation imposed by the West for its nuclear program, Iran is now critical to China’s ability to realize its grandiose ambitions. Other routes to Western markets are longer and lead through Russia, potentially a competitor of China.

“It is not as if their project is canceled if we don’t participate,” said Asghar Fakhrieh-Kashan, the Iranian deputy minister of roads and urban development. “But if they want to save time and money, they will choose the shortest route. There are also political advantages to Iran, compared to Russia. They are highly interested in working with us.”

Others worry that with the large-scale Chinese investment and China’s growing presence in the Iranian economy, Tehran will become more dependent than ever on China, already its biggest trading partner.

China is also an important market for Iranian oil, and because of remaining unilateral American sanctions that intimidate global banks, it is the only source of the large amounts of capital Iran needs to finance critical infrastructure projects. But that, apparently, is a risk the leadership is prepared to take.

“China is dominating Iran,” said Mehdi Taghavi, an economics professor at Allameh Tabataba’i University in Tehran, adding that the “Iranian authorities do not see any drawbacks to being dependent on China. Together, we are moving ahead.”

In a 2016 test, China and Iran drove a train from the port of Shanghai in eastern China to Tehran in just 12 days, a journey that takes 30 days by sea. In Iran, they used the existing track between Tehran and Mashhad, powered by a slower diesel-powered train. When the new line is opened in 2021, it is expected to accommodate electric trains at speeds up to 125 miles an hour.

Mr. Fakhrieh-Kashan, an English speaker who oversees negotiation of most of the larger international state business deals, said the Chinese initiative would do much more than just provide a channel for transporting goods. “Think infrastructure, city planning, cultural exchanges, commercial agreements, investments and tourism,” he said. “You can pick any project, they are all under this umbrella.”

Business ties between Iran and China have been growing since the United States and its European allies at the time started pressuring Iran over its nuclear program around 2007. China remains the largest buyer of Iranian crude, even after Western sanctions were lifted in 2016, allowing Iran to again sell oil in European markets.

Chinese state companies are active all over the country, building highways, digging mines and making steel. Tehran’s shops are flooded with Chinese products and its streets clogged with Chinese cars.

Iran’s leaders hope that the country’s participation in the plan will enable them to piggyback on China’s large economic ambitions. “The Chinese plan is designed in such a way that it will establish Chinese hegemony across half of the world,” Mr. Fakhrieh-Kashan said. “While Iran will put its own interests first, we are creating corridors at the requests of the Chinese. It will give us huge access to new markets.”

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