Silk Road Resurgence Ignites Fierce Regional Competition Among Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan Commentary
Silk Road Resurgence Ignites Fierce Regional Competition Among Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan
Edited by: JURIST Staff

The idea of reviving the Silk Road is gaining traction, but with a twist: this time, it’s expected to ignite competition regionally and globally. China, spearheading the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), aims to create a massive economic bloc by connecting its economy to around 150 countries. The World Bank estimates BRI’s potential to add a staggering $7.1 trillion to global economic growth.

However, the initiative is already fueling various international and regional rivalries. Beyond the existing competition between China and the US, both viewing the Middle East as a critical transit route, numerous regional power struggles unfold within West Asia, dubbed the “corridor war.” Key players in this game include Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. For Iran, the BRI presents a golden opportunity to reclaim its historical significance and influence in the region, a position it believes the ancient Silk Road, passing through its territory, rightfully granted it.

Firstly, Iran is the only country with a direct land route from Central Asia to Europe. Otherwise, Chinese transit would have to go through Pakistan to the port of Gwadar and from there, via the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal, to Chinese-owned and operated ports in Europe, such as Piraeus in Greece. As a country along the Belt and Road, this East-West corridor increasingly propels Iran into ideological and geopolitical competition.

Secondly, while further investment is needed, Iran already has a relatively well-developed transportation network, including railways and roads, which can be further improved through BRI projects.

The third factor is the war, which has sidelined Russia from many geo-economic equations. Consequently, with the closure of the BRI’s “Northern Corridor” (via Russia to Europe) due to the war, the majority of Chinese land transit must now pass through either Iran or Turkey.

Of course, this does not mean that Iran will forget Russia. In fact, in addition to China’s east-west corridor, Iran is also pursuing the north-south corridor that would connect Russia to Iran’s southern ports in Chabahar via rail. It seems that Iran intends to become a central hub for connecting these two corridors.

Subject to the harshest Western oil sanctions, Iran considers these corridors to be of critical importance to its economy. To maintain its position in these corridors, Iran must not only secure its own sea and land routes but also ensure the security and necessary conditions for the routes that will continue from Iran. From this perspective, Iran’s influence in Iraq goes beyond value-based and ideological aspects; it harks back to Iran’s historical perspective and centuries-old rivalry with Turkey over Baghdad. Turkey is trying to reduce Iran’s influence through various projects such as the “Middle Corridor.” This corridor is “based on the idea of creating a regional rail network” that originates from Turkey and reaches Central Asia and China via the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea.

The recent Karabakh war is another manifestation of the escalating covert conflicts between Tehran and Ankara in the corridor war. The pressure exerted by Turkey and Baku to create the Zangazur corridor excludes Iran from numerous equations in the northeast of the country. These pressures have not only been political and even somewhat security-related but have also extended to the provocation of the large Azerbaijani population in Iran by the Republic of Azerbaijan government. Tehran perceives this as an attempt to further isolate Iran from the regional economy and establish Turkey’s complete dominance over a crescent stretching from the Mediterranean in the west to Central Asia in the northeast of Iran. This crescent, with Turkey’s growing influence in Syria and the Kurdistan region in western Iran and the infiltration of Turkish security forces in Afghanistan in eastern Iran, is now a major concern for Tehran.

In fact, the race for BRI dominance heats up as Iran and Turkey, historical rivals, vie for a central role in this economic game-changer. Iran boasts the coveted direct land bridge to Europe, while Turkey positions itself as a crucial link between Asia and Europe, offering a shorter maritime route. Both nations are fiercely lobbying China, and the competition promises to be a fascinating chess match on the geopolitical stage.

With this picture in mind, the Iranian government is trying to undermine Turkey’s transit plan. Therefore, it emphasizes the route that connects the Iranian section of the Belt and Road Initiative from Basra in Iraq to Tartus in Syria. Iran’s efforts to maintain the position of its forces in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, are aimed at protecting the future path that Iran sees itself as a part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Historically, for Iran, access to the Mediterranean has not only been of geo-economic importance but also of civilizational importance. It is with this in mind that Tehran’s plans have primarily targeted Turkey’s corridor plans.

This competition is not limited to the western and northwestern parts of Iran. In fact, Pakistan plays a key role in this complex chess game. The two Iranian ports of Chabahar and Gwadar in Pakistan are in fierce competition to gain the main share in the Belt and Road Initiative corridor. As in the case of Turkey and Iran, the main victims here are the Baloch people living in the border regions of Iran and Pakistan.

On both sides of the border, there is a significant Baloch population. The Pakistani government is dealing with the resistance of Baloch nationalist groups such as the Balochistan Liberation Army and, more recently, the increasing militant activities of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. On the other side, the Sistan and Baluchestan province of Iran has been in a state of high security since at least 2022. Local civil protests have continued in the province, while terrorist groups such as Jaish al-Adl have also continued to carry out numerous operations against government forces.

Recently, both Iran and Pakistan have carried out counter-terrorism operations on each other’s territory, which may have shocked many. However, the reality is that these operations can be explained in the context of the two sides’ competing plans for greater participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It is in this context that China has been the main mediator as tensions have escalated between Iran and Pakistan. China is concerned that if the security of Chabahar and Gwadar is disrupted, the entire route would be jeopardized, ultimately benefiting external actors like US or even Russia.

While the initial issue may seem to be the situation of the Baloch people in both Iran and Pakistan, what is now of vital importance to Tehran is the fate of the Chabahar-Zahedan-Sarakhs railway. Despite the many threats, this railway is the lifeline that connects Iran’s trade to global trade.

The fate of this railway, and more generally the future path of the corridor that emerges from the heart of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, depends on Iran’s ability to resolve its multiple internal and regional crises. Iran is trying to prepare the route from Tartus to the east of Balochistan to link the Chinese east-west and Russian north-south routes. However, the question that must be asked at the end of this note is: Beyond regional equations, to what extent is Iran ready to secure its domestic security to enter such a corridor?

Faezeh Ghasemi is an independent analyst with expertise in international relations and Middle Eastern/North African area studies.

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.