Russia and Iran, comrades-in-sanctions from the West, are connecting with each other . . . through a railway. And Azerbaijan intends to be the crucial middle link.
The Russian State Railroads Company earlier this week announced plans to build a railway link from Russia, across Azerbaijan, to Iran. An intergovernmental agreement on building the railway is expected to be signed in July next year and the Russian firm said it will foot the bill for the project.
Azerbaijan has its reasons to be suspicious of both countries, but, so far, has given no sign of skittishness about the deal.
Yet neither is it putting all its eggs in one basket. Also on the horizon is the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway to Turkey via Georgia which promises to carry five million tons of cargo and one million people each year. The kickoff is slotted for 2015.
How successful Azerbaijan will be in juxtaposing an Eastern train project with a Western one is unclear, however. The idea is not likely to earn warm support in the West, with which Baku already has a relatively schizophrenic relationship — chummy when it comes to energy and assistance for NATO in Afghanistan; far cooler when it comes to reported Azerbaijani abuses of civil rights.
Perhaps that last factor, at least to some degree, contributeAzerbaijan to think it's time to explore what it has in common with Russia and Iran, and express it through rail.
Russian Duma Speaker Sergei Narishkin, in Tehran from November 16-17, made no bones about the project being a slapback at the West.
“We view these so-called sanctions as a blatant instrument for economic and political pressure, an instrument that has nothing to do with the norms of international law and the norms of the World Trade Organization,” Narishkin said after talks with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Larijani.
As yet, an OSCE-imposed arms embargo is the major Western trade bloc Azerbaijan faces. But in September, the European Parliament called on the EU to apply sanctions if the country's human-rights performance did not improve. So far, though, there’s been no indication that such measures will be adopted.
But energy, a topic close to Azerbaijan's heart, and transportation also play a role in this railway-pact.
Russian and Iranian officials vowed to cooperate in reversing the bear trend in the world oil market and discussed the overall possibilities of simplifying land and sea transportation links.
Shipments between the two countries have been proceeding apace except by rail; the new train-link could help pick up the slack, enthusiastically predicted Russian Parliamentary Committee for Transportation Chairperson Yevgeny Moskvichyev.
Azerbaijan's own frequently fraught ties with Iran could play a key role here, but, recently, Baku supposedly has made significant efforts with Tehran to put behind them past frictions over mutual irredentist claims, differences over Israel and Azerbaijan’s ties with the West. To cinch the thaw, Iran even proposed to Azerbaijan that the two start producing cars together.
These recurring Azerbaijani-Iranian thaws never last for long, yet, for now, no one seems to be thinking about that.
But Moscow’s interest in building train tracks in the South Caucasus is not limited to Azerbaijan and its changeable relations with Iran.
Georgia is another important link in the region’s railway politics. Russia and its close economic ally, Armenia, are promoting the restoration of a Soviet-era railroad connection across Georgia and breakaway Abkhazia. All four sides have recently expressed interest in restoring the route, except Tbilisi, which faces strong homegrown opposition to letting go of a potential economic trump card with Abkhaz separatists.