30.04.2021 Author: Valery Kulikov

Iranian Alternative to the Suez Canal


With the recent blockage of the Suez Canal by the container ship Ever Given, many countries are already actively involved in the search and discussion of a possible future alternative to this maritime transport route connecting Europe and Asia. For instance, Russia proposed the Northern Sea Route, and Israel recalled the idea of the Ben-Gurion Canal, which could connect the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, bypassing the Suez Canal.

Iran is not far behind in this regard, proposing as one of the “bypass routes” the North-South transport corridor from the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea, the idea of which it suggested way back in 2016. According to Amin Tarafo of the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development of the Islamic Republic, this route will be launched in the near future, and will not only activate the connections of the countries of the region with Europe, but will also increase the role of the Black Sea, Iran and the Caucasus in global transportation. On April 19, another round of negotiations on the functioning of this transport route was held between representatives of Greece, Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Bulgaria. At the same time, the possibility of other countries interested in cooperation joining the project was emphasized.

Mahmoud Ommati, deputy chairman of the board of directors of the Iranian Association of International Transportation Companies, said that Iran can play the role of a corridor between the North and the South in international trade. At the same time, he recalled that the country is on the verge of joining the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which includes Armenia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, which, he is convinced, will lead to additional prosperity of the North-South corridor. According to Ommati, the creation of this transport corridor was agreed upon by Russia, India and Iran in 2000, and the Islamic Republic could play a key role as a suitable alternative to the Suez Canal.

Another highly promising project as an alternative to the Suez Canal is, of course, the idea of building a 750 km long Russian-Iranian shipping route between the Caspian and the Persian Gulf through the territory of Iran. The idea of this project arose after the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78 as an opportunity to connect the Indian Ocean with the Caspian Sea by this sea route, and then across the Caspian to Northern Europe via the Volga. During the reign of Nicholas II of Russia, a Russian-Iranian commission was even established in 1904, which began designing this canal. And two options were considered then: the western (to the Persian Gulf coast) and eastern (directly to the Indian Ocean). However, a series of wars and other events prevented the practical implementation of this project: war with Japan, World War I, the October Revolution in Russia, then World War II. However, there is information that during the Tehran Conference in 1943, Joseph Stalin met with the Shah of Iran and talked to him about this route. The project had not only trade and economic, but also military-strategic significance.

After World War II, the United States strongly opposed the construction of the canal, because this project, in addition to its transport purpose, was of significant military-strategic importance to Russia. However, Washington and its Western allies have actively opposed this, even though Iran was under strong US influence during the Cold War. As some American and Middle Eastern media noted at the time, Washington, in order to prevent the creation of a military-political alliance between Iran and Iraq, as well as to prevent the construction of the Caspian-Persian Gulf canal, even went as far as to unleash a war between these two Middle Eastern countries in 1980 and maintain an armed crisis in the region. And in 1997, Washington even issued a serious warning to Tehran against any attempts to begin construction of such a canal, promising “severe sanctions,” as this project could objectively weaken the geopolitical influence of the United States and its control over world transportation routes.

In recent years, however, this project, referred to in Iran as the “Iranian River,” has returned. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, a number of Indian Ocean countries and China have already shown interest in it. The Iranian delegation even visited the Volga-Don Canal, the Volga-Baltic Waterway, established working contacts with the Russian Rosmorrechflot about the possible joint implementation of this project, the estimated cost of which is about 10 billion dollars and, according to estimates of Iranian and Russian experts, these investments will pay back within five years from the start of the canal. The Iranian part of the project route runs in western and southwestern Iran — from the Iranian port of Enzeli (South Caspian), then along the rivers Sefīd-Rūd – Kerhe – Nahr el-Kahla with the latter flowing into Shatt el-Arab. It is noted that this is a wide river fairway for mixed river-sea navigation vessels, flowing into the Persian Gulf. In 2018, the new status of the Caspian basin by the Caspian countries removed legal obstacles to the construction of the canal, so the Caspian route of such a waterway will pass through the middle water area, where there are no national maritime zones.

As a result, this waterway will form the shortest Euro-Asian water transit route from the Baltic region through the Volga-Baltic Canal and along the Volga to the Caspian Sea and then through Iran to the Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean. It will be possible to reach the Indian Ocean twice as fast by this waterway than through the Bosporus – Dardanelles – Suez – Red Sea, which is why many countries began to show an increasing interest in the project. And the favorable developing relations between Iran and Russia today, as well as the interest of China and a number of other leading Asian states in this project, allow one to hope in a possible fairly rapid transition of the Russian-Iranian alternative to the Suez Canal from a project to actual construction.

Valery Kulikov, political expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.

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