The "Gilan gap" of the North-South rail corridor will be closed very soon

08.02.23 10:40

The Ministry of Roads and Urban Development of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported that in January 2023 a Russian delegation visited the construction of Resht-Astara railway in Gilan ( At the meeting with the Russian delegation Deputy Minister of Roads and Urban Development Khayraleh Khademi mentioned about the length of 164 km of Resht-Astara railway and mentioned that the construction works have already begun and 12 km of railway line has been laid from Astara and 10 km from Resht.


The leadership of the agency hopes that this railway line will be completed within maximum 3 years. Thus, the "railway gap" between the Iranian city of Resht and the city of Astara on the border with the Republic of Azerbaijan will be eliminated. This gap has prevented the start of full-fledged cargo movement along the North-South corridor via Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran.


The railway link between Resht and the Caspian Sea coast is also expected to be completed by the spring of 2024, allowing for increased cargo flow.


However, questions remain as to why the accelerated construction of such an important railway section has started now. Although the Qazvin Astara railway via Resht was planned back in 2005. And it is much easier to connect Resht and Astara by railway than Resht and Qazvin, a section that has already been built.


The Iranian side started constructing the railway section between Resht and Qazvin in 2009. On 22 November 2018, the first trial train on the Qazvin-Resht railway was launched. The main inauguration ceremony for the construction of this 164km section took place on 6 March 2019 with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Azerbaijani Economy Minister Shahin Mustafayev and officials from Pakistan and Iraq.


The road Resht-Kazvin runs through difficult mountainous terrain. Twenty-two tunnels and 15 bridges were built all along this railway, a total length of 25 and 8 kilometres. Nothing like this is required on the flat section of the Resht-Astara. Meanwhile, a bridge over the border river separating the Iranian and Azerbaijani cities under the same name of Astara has already been built with the help of the Azerbaijani side.


The Resht-Astara section is much easier to build than the Qazvin-Resht section. It runs on a coastal plain and has no natural obstacles in the form of mountains or large rivers. The construction was expected to take less than 3 years. Moreover, Azerbaijan, which was interested in the railway, provided Iran with a $500 million preferential loan for the construction of the Astara-Resht section.


However, the construction of the railway was delayed for almost 3 years. As a result, cargoes, including those from Russia, that were transiting through Azerbaijan to the border station of Astara had to be reloaded into road transport and transported to Resht. This led to a sharp increase in the cost of transport along the North-South corridor.


As far back as the construction of the Qazvin-Rasht railway, certain forces, including the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian lobby, lobbied for the Armenia-Iran railway as a key part of the North-South corridor. Although this railway had to pass through difficult and inaccessible mountainous terrain, both in Armenia and Iran.  The Iran-Armenia railway would have been several times more expensive than the Resht-Astara railway.


In addition, due to Russia's occupation of the Georgian Abkhazia, even after the construction of the Iran-Armenia railway, it is difficult to solve the issue of connecting this railway with the Russian railways through Georgia.  To begin with Abkhazia needs to be de-occupied, but neither Russia nor the Armenian lobby wants this in principle. Therefore almost no work was carried out on the Resht-Astara section before the 44 day war in Karabakh. The railway from Kazvin reached Resht and was already functioning, but no further construction was carried out.


Following the release of Azerbaijani Karabakh from Armenian occupation in November 2020 and an agreement on the outcome of the 44-day war, there was a chance to establish a direct rail link between Russia and Iran via a different route. In November 2020 it was agreed that the Zangezur corridor would be opened. The railway connection between Meghri (Zangezur, Republic of Armenia) and Julfa (Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, Republic of Azerbaijan), which existed in Soviet times before the Karabakh conflict, could thus be reopened.


However, the authorities in Tehran actually supported the authorities in Yerevan and Armenian nationalists in preventing the opening of the Zangezur corridor. Despite the fact that the opening of this corridor would give the resumption of direct rail transit between Russia and Iran. Until February 2022, neither did Russia insist on reopening the railway connection through Zangezur, nor on accelerating the construction of the Resht-Astara railway.


This all changed after Russia's aggression against Ukraine in February 2022 and the imposition of international sanctions against Russia. Russia was cut off from traditional Western freight routes and was interested in an early opening of a direct rail link within the North-South corridor via Azerbaijan and Iran. It was only after this that the construction of the Resht-Astara railway was resumed.


It is hoped that in the near future the railway between Resht and Astara via Gilan will be completed and a full-fledged railway route between the Baltic Sea and the Persian Gulf via Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran will become operational. This will give further impetus to the development of Gilan as Iran's "northern gateway" on key transit routes.



Varden Tsulukidze

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