The world is witnessing rapid changes in the international politico-economic system in recent years due to the rising economic and military might of China and the resurgence of Russia on the global stage. The countries are making new alliances and building partnerships to serve their respective national interests. The mantra of win-win cooperation, common destiny, joint ventures for development, and economic interdependence is on the rise. In this context, three powerful Muslim nations, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey are also strengthening their ties and enhancing cooperation. The decision to revive Istanbul-Tehran-Islamabad (ITI) freight train is a glaring example in this regard. The ITI train will not only enhance economic interdependence and regional connectivity between these three countries and the region as a whole but also has geostrategic significance.
The ITI/ECO freight train is the project of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). The ECO, which was established as Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) in 1964 by Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey, the organization was rechristened as “ECO” in 1985, was founded to promote sustainable development of the member states and the region as a whole which would eventually enhance economic interdependence and regional connectivity.
In the pursuit of this objective, the ECO launched the project of Turkey-Iran-Pakistan freight train and the first train left Islamabad for Istanbul in 2009 but the service was canceled in 2011 due to logistical challenges. The railways of Pakistan, Turkey, and Iran had mutually agreed last year to resume regular operations to boost economic cooperation among the three countries. According to media reports, the cargo train is likely to resume its operations by the end of March 2021 with the high hopes that it would generate the desired outcomes this time.
According to Pakistan Railways record, the first ECO or Istanbul-Tehran-Islamabad (ITI) freight train from Islamabad to Istanbul was inaugurated on August 14, 2009. Similarly, the first train from Istanbul to Islamabad reached on August 13, 2010. So far, eight trains have been dispatched from Pakistan to Turkey, with the last leaving Lahore on November 5, 2011. Since the launch of the service in 2009, Turkey has sent six trains to Pakistan, with the last one reaching here on December 9, 2011. However, the cargo train service has been put on hold since 2011.
The rail route covers a total distance of 6,500 kilometers. It is spread at a length of 2,600 kilometers in Iran, 1,950 kilometers in Turkey, and 1,990 kilometers in Pakistan. It takes up to 45 days for the goods to reach European countries from Pakistan through sea routes but this rail link would significantly reduce the transportation time. An advisor to the Pakistani Prime Minister for Commerce and Investment, Mr. Abdul Razak Dawood, while announcing the revival of the cargo service, has stated that the ITI train will take around 12 days to complete the one-side trip and it will have a capacity of 750 metric tons of commercial goods.
Recently, two virtual coordination meetings of the ECO, on 1st and 4th March respectively, have been held this year in which representatives from Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey participated. In these meetings, the Iranian and Turkish authorities asked the Pakistani officials to introduce per km distance charges rather than the fixed rates. They were of the view that the fixed charges were expensive to their forwarding agents and the business community. In response to this query, Pakistani authorities assured that they would consider these requests. Moreover, maximum payload for 20 and 40 feet containers and rates (0.18 euro per km for a loaded 20-feet equalling unit/container, 0.23 euro per km for a loaded 40-feet equalling unit/container, 0.012 euro per km for conventional cargo, and 5.60 euro per ton for lake van and 50 percent of the full containers for the empty containers) were discussed in details.
From an economic perspective, this ITI train will enhance the trade volume between these countries. At present, the bilateral trade between Pakistan and Turkey amounted to around 804 million USD; the volume of Pakistan’s exports to Turkey is 296 million USD while the imports from Turkey amounted to 508 million USD approximately. Moreover, the bilateral trade between Pakistan and Iran is 293.18 million USD; the volume of Pakistan’s imports from Iran is 260.89 million USD whereas the exports amounted to just 32.29 million USD. The success of the ITI train will not only result in the instantaneous increase in the bilateral trade between these countries but will also give Pakistan leverage to curb its trade deficit with these countries and boost its exports by encouraging small and medium enterprises.
Broadly speaking, the ITI/ECO freight train has the potential to play a vital role in the economic integration and connectivity between Asia and Europe as it offers the shortest and most affordable route for transportation of goods between the two continents. Apart from Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Russia, and China are expected to benefit from this cargo train service. Furthermore, the trade and economic analysts are of the view that the link with the Middle East and European markets will unlock the full potential of this rail service.
Till now, China has not included ITI as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but the scholars are of the view that the ITI would eventually be incorporated into BRI. Fatemeh Aman, an Iranian analyst at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, says, “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”. Moreover, she also believes that if the project becomes operational, it will dramatically increase connectivity among Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan.
Nevertheless, many scholars see the ITI rail link as an extension of BRI. For instance, Lukasz Przybyszewski, a West Asia analyst for the Asia Research Centre at Warsaw’s War Studies Academy, said, “Beijing regards Iranian transport infrastructure in particular — and ECO’s more generally — as parts of BRI. In times of crisis and war, such alternative land trade routes are very valuable and profitable. And Beijing assumes these countries will be active BRI partners in need of precisely tailored investments”.
Therefore, it is expected that these three countries would expand their ITI train service by enhancing cooperation with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A Japanese newspaper, named Nikkei Asia, has already reported that a government official from Pakistan has said that the ITI railroad will connect to China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Region through Pakistan’s ML-1 railway line. The ITI railroad is also an opportunity for Russia to enhance its trade with Middle East, Africa, and beyond, therefore, there is a strong possibility that Russia could also join it in the nearby future.
The geostrategic dimension of the ITI railroad cannot be ignored as this railroad is not only offering an alternative route in times of war or peace for the countries but it also has the potential to play a decisive role in the formation of a new bloc including Pakistan, CARs, Turkey, Iran, Russia and China. The emergence of this bloc will cause serious damage to the US influence in the Middle East and Asia as these countries have unique characteristics which can turn the tables for the US in the region.
For instance, China’s rising economic and military might has significantly increased Chinese influence at regional and international levels. Now, the BRI is further increasing the presence and influence of China in most parts of the world. Iran is placed at an important geostrategic location and also enjoys influence in the Middle East. Despite economic sanctions by the US, Iran has maintained a strong military. It is also rich in oil resources and selling a large quantity of oil to several countries including China.
Moreover, Turkey is a regional economic hub due to its important geographical location. It has emerged as a strong economy and military power in recent years. It has also gained a strong influence in the Muslim world. The resurgence of Russia at the global state has also been a dramatic phenomenon in recent years. This strong military power is now gaining significant influence in all corners of the world especially Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Last but not the least, Pakistan is becoming a regional economic hub due to its significant geographical location. It is the only Muslim country with nuclear weapons, therefore, it enjoys special status in the Muslim world. The formation of an alliance between these countries will not the countries to build a strong economy and enhance economic interdependence but will also result in the end of the US influence in the region.
In a nutshell, the revival of the Istanbul-Tehran-Islamabad (IT)/ECO freight train is a farsighted decision and a step towards the right direction as it will play a key role to enhance economic interdependence and regional connectivity which would eventually lead towards sustainable peace and development for the region. The quarters concerned, from Pakistan, Turkey, and Iran, should increase engagements and leave no stone unturned to make this ITI cargo train service a great success. The geostrategic importance of the ITI railroad can be a decisive factor for the stakeholders to work at a very fast pace.