All Aboard! Afghanistan, Iran Open First Rail Link

ISLAMABAD – Afghanistan and Iran Thursday inaugurated the first railway link between them, expressing hope the landmark move will boost trade and travel links across the region.

The 225-kilometer line connects the eastern Iranian city of Khaf to the western Afghan city of Herat, providing a crucial transport link to landlocked Afghanistan, which is ravaged by several decades of war.

Attaullah Nasib is the director of a government agency known as the Afghanistan Investment Facilitation Unit, which helps foster business ventures in the country. Nasib told the inaugural ceremony, held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, that his country was currently connected to the railway networks of central Asia all the way to China. The Khaf-Herat line, Nasib said, would provide Afghan traders with access to Iran’s railroads and seaports as well as to the rail networks of European countries.

“The railway station inaugurated here today…will enhance Afghanistan’s economy, with a focus on long-term strategic economic development to increase domestic growth, regional stability, and promote a positive economic environment, which will foster private investment,” he said.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his Iranian counterpart, , also addressed Thursday’s virtual opening ceremony, which saw cargo trains depart from opposite ends of the line.

Rouhani hailed the opening as “a historic day” in the bilateral relationship, saying his country was able to implement the project despite economic sanctions imposed by the United States on his country.

“Our victory is your victory and your happiness is our joy,” Iranian media quoted Rouhani as saying during the ceremony.

Ghani also called the railway a “historic and vital project” not only for the two countries but for the region and beyond.

Under construction since 2007, the estimated $700 million rail link can transport one million passengers and six million tons of goods a year, according to Iranian officials.

Tehran has mostly funded construction of the line on both sides of the border as part of its development assistance to Kabul.

Iran is Afghanistan’s second-largest trading partner after neighboring Pakistan, which is also planning to extend its national railway network into eastern and southwestern Afghan border towns.

“Trade can bring some much-needed geo-strategic stability in the region,” said Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan government adviser.

Farhadi, who also served at the International Monetary Fund, said the Khaf-Herat link will potentially facilitate Afghan exports of dried fruits and marble stones to Azerbaijan and Turkey. For Iran, he added, the connection opens possibilities to export to central Asian countries of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Thursday’s inauguration comes as representatives of the Afghan government and Taliban insurgency engage in peace talks in Qatar to find a negotiated end to their country’s protracted conflict, which has hampered infrastructure development in Afghanistan.

“Products find their way to markets even during war time but overall business environment, transport and logistics costs hugely benefit from peace,” Farhadi said. “The entire Iran/Afghanistan/Pakistan region has pent up, untapped trade potential and complementarities which can help them export more to the rest of the world,” he said.

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