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Iraq and Iran Agree to Complete Border Rail Link

By Nigar Bayramli May 9, 2023

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The general director of the Iraqi Republic Railways Company and the executive director of the Iranian Railways Company signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) at the Iranian Consulate in Iraq's Basra Province on May 7, 2023. / Financial Tribune

The Iraqi Republic Railways Company and its Iranian counterpart have signed a memorandum of understanding to complete a rail link between the Iranian border town of Shalamcheh and the city of Basra, in southeastern Iraq. 

The agreement was signed on May 7 at the Iranian Consulate in Basra Province by the general director of the Iraqi Republic Railways Company and the executive director of the Iranian Railways Company, according to the Iranian website Financial Tribune.

As per the memorandum, the two sides agreed on the precise route for the railroad from Shalamcheh to the Arvand River and established a specific timeline for the executive operations of the rail connection. This included scheduling operations for mine clearance and the construction of rail infrastructure from Shalamcheh to Arvand (Shatt al-Arab on the Iraqi side) and the handover of land for studies on the bridge's supporting structures, which will connect the riverbanks.

On April 20, Iran and Iraq agreed to start the construction of the long-planned 32-km Shalamcheh-Basra railroad. Baghdad has allocated a budget of nearly $230 million for this railroad, according to Iran's deputy foreign minister for economic diplomacy, Mehdi Safari. The construction is expected to take 18 months to complete and will also complete a missing link in the region, potentially connecting Iran's major rail network with Syria and Jordan via Iraq.

Iran, Iraq, and Syria also agreed to establish a free trade zone near Damascus on May 6. According to the secretary of Iran's Free Zones Supreme Council, Hojjatollah Abdolmaleki, a tripartite committee was to be formed to facilitate trade, investment, and transit of goods from Iran to Syria via Iraq.

Iraq imports much of its natural gas and electricity from Iran in order to maintain energy supplies amid efforts to reduce its reliance on Iranian imports through cooperation with Western companies. Iraq has billions of dollars in debt to Iran for the import of gas and electricity, and the repayment of the debts in dollars has been a problem in recent years, as the US puts pressure on Baghdad to limit its cooperation with Tehran in the areas sanctioned by Washington.

On March 19, Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani and his Iraqi counterpart Qasim Al-Araji signed a border security agreement to coordinate efforts to protect the common borders between the two countries and enhance joint cooperation in several security fields.

Last November, the heads of Iranian and Iraqi border guard forces signed a deal to coordinate combating "terrorist" groups and drug traffickers. Tehran has frequently criticized Baghdad for failing to protect its border against infiltration by armed groups, mostly based in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Referring to the border agreement, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told his visiting Iraqi counterpart Abdul Latif Rashid on April 29 that the slightest insecurity in any part of Iraq is considered a security issue for Iran. He described the presence of US forces in the region as "disruptive" to the security of the region and underlined the need to secure regional cooperation in fighting drug trafficking and respecting mutual water agreements.

Iraq has been wrestling with a number of water-related concerns over the past few years, including unprecedented droughts that triggered severe water shortages and a steep decline in crop production. Iraq repeatedly called on Türkiye and Iran to release more water into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, stressing that the flow of water into the two rivers had decreased significantly.