Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif toured Central Asia April 5-8, visiting Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. During his stop in Uzbekistan he sought Tashkent’s assurance of interest in railroad projects that will connect the two countries and confirm Uzbekistan’s continued use of Iranian sea ports. Although Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev reassured Zarif that his country maintains interest in the railroad that runs through Iran, for the past several months Uzbekistan has boosted efforts to complete a trans-Afghan railroad to Pakistan.
Only two months ago, in February, Afghan, Pakistani, and Uzbek officials held their first trilateral meeting on the construction of a trans-Afghan railroad. The sides signed a road map on the construction of the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railroad that aims to connect Uzbekistan with Pakistani ports via Afghanistan. The Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs is actively working to ensure the project is realized.
Tashkent’s interest in Pakistani ports led Uzbekistan’s most senior leadership to open new lines of communication. Mirziyoyev and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan held their first bilateral meeting on April 14 focusing discussion on the trans-Afghan railroad project. Prior to this engagement, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov paid a visit to Pakistan on March 10. Negotiations with the Taliban movement and the Afghan government are active as well. Kamilov met with a Taliban representative in Qatar on April 10. In February, Kamilov held meetings with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar.
The Iranian railroad, with access to the Chabahar and Bandar Abbas ports via the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran-Oman transportation corridor, and the trans-Afghan railroad, with access to Gwadar port, are competing projects which physically parallel each other in certain areas. The railroad via Iran pre-dates the recently conceived trans-Afghan railroad. On April 25, 2011, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Oman, and Iran signed an agreement on a transportation corridor. The agreement was enforced in 2016, yet the level of effort put into the project in the past five years is far behind the level of effort put into the trans-Afghan railroad effort in the past two months.
It is unclear whether Iran-U.S. tensions following the killing of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020, and U.S. sanctions that followed, contributed to Tashkent’s decision to seek alternatives to its existing Iranian railroad connections. Any conflict in Iran would lead to the disruption of vital economic relations and transportation connections in the region. Tashkent is tied to Iran’s railroad; Bandar-Abbas port currently provides the shortest route of access, under seven days, to the sea for double landlocked Uzbekistan.
The trans-Afghan railroad is attractive for a variety of reasons, but most crucially if completed it would provide a shorter route to a sea port for Central Asian countries, particularly Uzbekistan. The construction of the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul section of the trans-Afghan railroad is planned to start in September 2021. There are existing rails already connecting Uzbekistan to Mazar-i-Sharif.
While some regional projects languish on paper for decades, there is reason to believe the trans-Afghan railroad will be realized on schedule. The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) set up a Central Asian Investment Fund to fund large infrastructure projects. It has been in negotiations with the government of Uzbekistan since summer 2020. It is reasonable to assume that the trans-Afghan railroad was discussed under that framework.
Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, was present at the inaugural meeting between IDFC officials and and the government of Uzbekistan. The official statements include such language as “mutual efforts for economic recovery in Afghanistan” and “expanding trade, economic, transport, and energy ties between Afghanistan and Central Asia” that clearly allude to large infrastructure projects. The Central Asia Investment Partnership, joined also by Kazakhstan, has a target of raising $1 billion in the next five years for “economic connectivity within Central Asia and the broader region.”
While Iran’s Zarif received reassurances from Mirizyoyev regarding Uzbekistan’s continued interest in the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran-Oman transportation corridor, efforts under his presidency toward the project have been lackluster, without practical progress. The sides failed to hold even a high level meeting about the route. On the contrary, Tashkent’s level of engagement with regard to the trans-Afghan railroad, particularly collaboration with Afghanistan and Pakistan, indicates heightened interest and high investment from Tashkent.