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Riding the Rails

The success of certain sanctions on Iran will always depend on the cooperation of Iran’s neighbors as to their enforcement. Major railway developments in 2010 are aligning to present Turkey and Pakistan, in particular, with decision points in that regard. With cargo and passengers moving in both directions, Iran’s reach in support of terrorists has the prospect of being significantly extended as well.

Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan have been working on a continuous railway link since 2007. Variously known as the Istanbul-Islamabad line or the “Zahedan corridor” — for the hub transits in Iran — the link was completed in mid-2009. With the three nations planning to inaugurate regular passenger and freight service on August 1, the obvious questions are whether the security arrangements in Turkey and Pakistan will reflect the intent of the UN sanctions, and whether they will be brokered with transparent honesty.

Turkey has a heavily-trafficked railway link to Europe as well as domestic concerns about the Kurdish insurgency. The Turks are certain to exercise a high level of vigilance over passengers and cargo at their borders. But that doesn’t mean they will enforce UN sanctions in brokering cargo passage to Iran, nor does it mean they will interdict shipments from Iran destined for Syria (and, ultimately, for Hezbollah). Indeed, light cargo can be transported to Syria with particular ease now, rail service having been restarted between Mersin, Turkey, and Aleppo in June 2010. An additional transport hub is scheduled to open in December between Gaziantep, Turkey, and Aleppo — this one linked with a new rail service between Turkey and Iraq that transits through northern Syria.

On the Pakistani side, railway security will operate according to Islamabad’s domestic priorities; the primary effort will be interdicting foreign support to internal insurgencies. If the Pakistani authorities don’t act as reliable enforcement agents, it won’t be difficult (although it will probably be expensive) to move UN-prohibited cargo to Iran through Pakistani ports and the national rail system. Moreover, given the extent of the emerging rail network — by which passengers will be able to move continuously on rail between Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan –terrorist operatives will have the ability to travel more directly and conveniently than by sea, but still avoid the international law-enforcement vulnerability of commercial air travel.

Iran’s options for evading sanctions are many; it has three other long borders besides the one on the Persian Gulf. Russia’s trade access to Iran across the Caspian Sea has long given Moscow a central position in multilateral negotiations with the mullahs. But with the new rail service joining Turkey and Pakistan, Iran will have a modern, convenient transport option that doesn’t involve Russia. On the Pakistani end, the influence of the EU will be less of a factor than it is with Turkey — and the useful “cover” of a thriving regular trade with China will be more important. For both Iran’s nuclear program and Islamist terror logistics, much will shortly depend on how Ankara and Islamabad handle security and law enforcement on the rails.


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