Iraqi Efforts to Connect Asia and Europe by Rail May Help Sideline Iran Commentary
Iraqi Efforts to Connect Asia and Europe by Rail May Help Sideline Iran

The Iraqi government’s decision to pour enormous funding into an ambitious railroad project that will connect Asia and Europe indicates that Iran may be inching ever closer to geopolitical obsolescence.

Reports emerged last year that the governments of Iraq, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had reached a transport agreement that would enable the latter two to bypass Iran, transporting goods instead through Iraq. A more recent announcement that Iraqi authorities had allocated funds for the project form the 2023 budget made clear that this was not just a theoretical exercise.

The 2,200 km. stretch of railway will connect Iraq’s (still under development) Grand Faw port with the broader region, and will transport goods and passengers alike. Parallel highways and gas pipelines are also to be built to complement the project. Iraqi officials have hailed these efforts as historically and economically significant insofar as they will launch Iraq’s role as a key link connecting Asia and Europe.

From a geopolitical standpoint, it bears noting that there have been numerous attempts in the past to create a more efficient railroad link through the region, including Iran’s relatively recent offer to sponsor the construction of a railway link in Basrah, Iraq that would connect with its own railroads in the nearby Iranian border town of Shalamcheh. This project would enable Iran to develop a more efficient north-south corridor, allowing it to bridge its railroad access to allies along the Mediterranean Coast, such as Lebanon and Syria.

Iraq’s decision to fund this railroad project on its own reflects an unwillingness not only to connect its railroad to Iran, but even to accept Iranian sponsorship of a large-scale infrastructure project — a fact made all the more interesting when considering the relative costs of the projects. The Shalamcheh-to-Basrah connection would have cost some $250 million (USD), while the Grand Faw project connecting Iraq with Turkey and the UAE is expected to cost billions. This is due to the fact that it will connect the southernmost point of Iraq to the northernmost point, and will also require tens of millions of kilometers to be laid in order to connect with Turkey’s railways.

By not only announcing, but throwing substantial state funds behind its readiness to construct this railway project, Iraq has emerged as a genuine rival threatening to seriously disrupt — if not overtake — Iran’s role in the regional transport corridor. And this isn’t a fluke of the current regimes; Iraq and Iran have discussed the Shalamcheh-to-Basrah project across regimes for the past two decades — ever since America’s invasion of Iraq. Each government that has rule in Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein has humored Tehran’s efforts to negotiate the link, but — according to leaked documents — have harbored deep-seated internal opposition.

Officials in Tehran have blamed American meddling for the project, indicating that Baghdad faces pressure from Washington to prevent Iran from developing an effective north-west corridor. These same critics assert that Turkey is pressuring Iraq to support its railway connection to Asia, in line with Ankara’s goal of becoming a regional energy and communication hub. Accordingly, it is entirely possible that going forward, Iran will hold these efforts against Iraq, such as by using it as leverage in their bilateral negotiations over energy and agricultural trades.

But bilateral leverage aside, the present scenario indicates that Iran is becoming increasingly isolated on the world stage. Officials in Tehran seem convinced of the country’s geopolitical importance, and that Iran is a critical component to bridging East and West. But the fact is, Iran’s strategically important geographical position does not equate to a strategically important geopolitical location.

For Iran to become the geopolitical force its leaders wish it to be, they will need to demonstrate a willingness to work to foster peace and security, and they will need to do what it takes to reverse the mounting international sanctions and economic isolation. As the Iraqi railroad project demonstrates, the alternative may be geographical and geopolitical obsolescence.

Sharareh Abdolhoseinzadeh is an independent analyst of Middle Eastern geopolitics.

Suggested citation: Sharareh Abdolhoseinzadeh, Efforts to Connect Asia and Europe Via Railway Signal Iraq Is Turning Its Back on Iran, JURIST – Academic Commentary, March 24, 2023,

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