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Is the Pakistan-Iran-Turkey rail link economically viable?

Haroon Janjua Islamabad
January 14, 2021

Iran, Pakistan and Turkey have agreed to revive a transnational train service, which is likely to connect Islamabad, Tehran and Istanbul this year. But can the three countries bear its cost?

Passengers returning to India from Pakistan
The ITI would increase connectivity among the three countries Image: Getty Images/AFP/N. Nanu

Last month, Turkish, Iranian and Pakistani officials agreed to revive the Istanbul-Tehran-Islamabad (ITI) rail network, which was launched in 2009. The aim of the project is to enhance communication and trade links among the three countries.

So far, the train has conducted trial runs, but officials signaled that it would be made operational soon.

The 6,500-kilometer (4,030 miles) railway line will run 1,950 kilometers in Turkey, 2,600 kilometers in Iran and 1,990 kilometers in Pakistan.

Although the ITI is not part of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), experts say the rail link would eventually be incorporated into it.

Fatemeh Aman, an Iranian analyst at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, says that if a proposed $400 billion (€329 billion) deal between China and Iran becomes reality, Beijing would need more projects like the ITI to increase connectivity within the region. "Also, if China manages to take over the US's role in Asia, it will need a greater partnership with regional countries," she told DW.

Easy travel and increased connectivity

Experts say the ITI would increase connectivity among the three countries and make traveling much easier. It will take a lot less time to travel from Istanbul to Islamabad via train (11 days) than the sea route, which takes up to 21 days.

"The ITI will make travel easier and safer than long-distance bus services. In the long term, it will possibly make the journey cheaper for pilgrims, and more enjoyable than air travel," Lukasz Przybyszewski, a West Asia analyst at the Warsaw's War Studies Academy, told DW.

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Aman believes that if the project becomes operational, it will "dramatically increase connectivity among Turkey, Iran and Pakistan."

"It will expedite cargo and container transportation, shorten travel time, and save cost," Aman added.

Security risks

But Tom Hussain, an Islamabad-based analyst, is cautious about the project. "Many transnational freight train and gas pipeline projects have been gathering dust for decades because of political instability in the region," Hussain told DW.

"Even now, the future of the ITI depends on two major factors: the lifting of US sanctions on Iran, and the end of the Afghan war. It would also require huge investments in the rail-port infrastructure for the project to be financially viable," he added.

There could also be security risks to the ITI as it passes through areas that are hit hard by an Islamist militancy. The "Islamic State" (IS) militant group is particularly active in parts of Pakistan's western Balochistan province and Iran. Also, separatist insurgents in Balochistan regularly attack security forces in the province, which is key to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

"The security risk is huge. The ITI would be an easy target for militants," Przybyszewski said, adding that the authorities could take measures to minimize the threat.

Analyst Aman says that cross-border attacks in the Balochistan regions of Iran and Pakistan also pose a threat to the rail link. "But we have seen that mutual economic interests play a role in improving the security situation," she said, adding that the governments of these countries need to ensure that locals are involved in these projects.

"It will require political reforms and a change in the perception of security," said Aman.

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Funding issues

But how will Pakistan, which is facing an acute economic crisis, fund this expensive project? The South Asian country's local railway network is a shambles, and upgrading the tracks in Balochistan province will be a mammoth task.

"For Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, it is not the most cost-effective project, but it is necessary, nonetheless. We'll see its economic benefits in the years to come," said Przybyszewski.

Islamabad-based analyst Hussain says the project will require massive foreign and private investment.

"This is where China's BRI comes into play. It can prove to be a key player in the ITI operations, just like it is doing with the Eurasian connectivity," he underlined.

However, media reports say that China will only lend "political support" to the ITI, and that Beijing expects Iran, Pakistan and Turkey to bear the project costs.

Haroon Janjua
Haroon Janjua Journalist based in Islamabad, focusing on Pakistani politics and societyJanjuaHaroon