I have written many articles on the Iranian corridor to the Mediterranean via Iraqi and Syrian territories. This is an old Iranian project, through which the regime seeks to extend its influence, control and gains all along the road between Iran and the Mediterranean countries of the Levant and in the surrounding region.
A new addition to this malign project, however, is Iran’s efforts to threaten the commercial interests of Arab states by leveraging its alliance with China. It aims to convince Beijing to change the original planned route of the New Silk Road and divert its essential course so that it runs through Iran, rather than passing through the Arabian Peninsula. China has already allocated a huge sum in long-term funding for its Iranian investment project, according to classified clauses in the Iranian-Chinese partnership agreement.
While Beijing has not confirmed this, it has not denied it either. This plan is not beyond the realms of possibility for two reasons. First, Beijing’s pragmatism-led policy, especially in relation to its economic interests, combines with its eagerness to lead the global economy in the future, particularly in relation to trade via high-speed railroads connecting China with the rest of the world. Both Iran and Iraq have existing railroad networks that simply need to be developed and interconnected with a wider rail network, and China possesses the necessary finances for this to happen.
Second, Iran’s regime has taken practical steps to expand into countries bordering the Mediterranean to make multiple gains in recent decades. Iranian experts have publicly discussed this expansionist project in local media outlets, using euphemistic terms such as “the gains of the Iranian resistance policy” and insisting on Iran’s undisputed right to reconstruction projects in Syria worth $400 billion (to rebuild much of what Iran helped the Damascus regime destroy). We will place greater focus here on clarifying the Iranian schemes, the stages they have reached, and the promising Arab role that will ensure the region will not succumb to these schemes.
The Iranian regime’s expansionist project began with its policy of establishing and deploying proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon on an intensive scale following the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. It accelerated this policy after the so-called Arab Spring post-2010. If the Muslim Brotherhood regime was not toppled in Egypt, Iran would have also taken this country as a base to spread its influence across North Africa.
After managing to entrench its allied military wings all along the transregional corridor, Iran’s regime ushered in the harvesting phase, reaping the benefits by stealing and exploiting Syria’s natural resources. In addition, it opened up commercial enterprises for companies linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps under the guise of “reconstruction.” Finally, Iran repeated the Syrian scenario in Iraq, flooding the Iraqi market with inferior Iranian products and using debt as leverage to put pressure on the Iraqi government to import Iranian gas and electricity.
Once Iran became certain that its schemes were paying off, it announced in late 2019 that the Imam Khomeini Port (located in the south of Iran on the Arabian Gulf) would be linked with Syria’s Latakia Port on the Mediterranean. This coincided with the launch of a project to link Iran’s Shalamcheh city with Iraq’s Basra, thus connecting Iran with the sprawling Iraqi rail network. This will further increase Iranian exports to Iraq and other countries in what is called the “transit trade” to Syria and Lebanon. In addition, this project will potentially help open up new markets in Arab and European countries around the Mediterranean, and even possibly lead to free tourist visas between these countries to maximize trade and tourism.
In addition to making economic gains from the railroad interconnection projects, Iran’s regime has far greater and far more dangerous long-term objectives. Train carriages, given the hundreds of passengers they bring together in one place, resemble a micro-community, facilitating, as time passes, cultural, intellectual and even linguistic exchanges that serve the Iranian regime’s expansionist objectives, such as exporting its hard-line sectarian and totalitarian revolutionary and ideological tenets to other countries, making it much more difficult to push back against it later.
However, the Iranian regime’s plans for railroad interconnection have taken off slowly because of harsh US sanctions, which have led to crippling financial and economic crises at home. The plans are in dire need of financial and technical funding, which opens the door wide for China to cooperate with Iran.
There is no doubt that the Iranian-Chinese rapprochement has increased in recent years, and China remains Iran’s biggest trade partner. This does not mean, however, that this rapprochement is eternal and irreversible. Beijing seeks to make significant economic gains by encouraging greater international cooperation. This Chinese enthusiasm for economic cooperation means that the door is also open for many Arab states to take advantage of the Chinese outreach and maximize their common interests with Beijing on the one hand and counter the malicious Iranian schemes that seek to marginalize their vital role and interests on the other.
In addition to making economic gains from railroad interconnection projects, Iran’s regime has far more dangerous long-term objectives.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
The Arabian Peninsula was an essential link in the original Silk Road, starting from Gerrha (the present-day eastern Saudi city of Al-Hofuf) and extending to Oman and Yemen via Makkah and Madinah, as well as to the cities situated on the Kingdom’s west coast, such as Jeddah, and even to Egypt’s Alexandria.
One consideration that encourages cautious optimism on this matter is that Arab states have already taken practical steps to counter the Iranian regime’s malicious schemes. In 2019, Saudi Arabia signed a landmark agreement to export electricity to Iraq, an urgent Iraqi need that Iran exploited. And, in November, the Kingdom reopened the Arar border crossing between the two countries. This is a vital crossing for trade between all the Gulf states and Iraq, and even Syria in the future.
Egypt also last month signed a similar deal to export electricity to Iraq, as well as a key agreement for industrial and commercial integration with Iraq. This will weaken Iran’s control over Iraq’s pharmaceutical and petrochemical sectors, as well as its monopolization of Iraqi infrastructure and reconstruction projects.
The continuation of such important Arab initiatives, along with continued coordination with Beijing to enhance common interests, could be a sufficient guarantee to maximize intra-Arab interests and thwart the expected Iranian schemes, which aim to damage Arab interests and crush Arab souls.