Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discuss railway projects in Dushanbe.
This week, Dushanbe hosted the fifth meeting of the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan, and the U.S., as expected, used the occasion to promote its "New Silk Road" vision of a future in which Afghanistan is a hub of commerce between Central and South Asia. "The region’s wealth of natural resources, nascent trade agreements, and a burgeoning network of transport and energy connections underscore the great economic promise of a more integrated South and Central Asia," said Robert Blake, assistant secretary of State for Central and South Asia, the U.S.'s senior representative at the meeting. "ut achieving greater economic cooperation – the essence of the New Silk Road vision – will not be easy or happen overnight. It will require strong buy-in and coordination by governments in the region, its international partners, and investment from the private sector."
So when participants announced that they would "accelerate" plans for a railway from Kashgar (in far western China) and Herat (in western Afghanistan), you might assume the U.S. would be thrilled. It doesn't get much more Silk Road than Kashgar and Herat, and getting China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan on the same page for a regional project is no small feat.
The catch is that Iran is a driving force behind the Kashgar-Herat railway project. And the U.S. can't abide any cooperation with Iran, New Silk Road be damned. Blake was asked about this at a press conference after the meeting:
Question [BBC Persia]: Mr. Blake, we know that the United States and European countries likewise, you promote integration projects in the region between Central Asia and South Asia. How is it possible without Iran’s participation?
Assistant Secretary Blake: The question was about Iran’s participation. Let me just say that consistent with America’s sanctions on Iran, the United States is encouraging all of the countries of the region to avoid trade and other transactions with the government of Iran in order to pressure Iran to engage with the international community about its concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. We believe there are some very good alternatives.
For example, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-India Pipeline is one very good alternative to some of the other pipelines that are being considered and this is a pipeline, the TAPI Pipeline is one that enjoys our very strong support, and I think it’s significant that this pipeline is attracting greater momentum and again greater support from the four countries involved.
Why would a pipeline preclude a railway? What does one have to do with the other? The next question to Blake also addressed the U.S.'s actions vis-a-vis Iran at the meeting:
Question [TojNews Agency/Tajikistan]: During one of the sessions of RECCA, when Iran’s president was making a statement the whole U.S. delegation walked out the room. It raises lots of questions among Tajik journalists. Since the United States is a democratic country and one of the main principles of democracy is to listen to all opinions. How would you comment on the action of the U.S. delegation during the RECCA. To what extent the United States are ready to listen to Iran?
Assistant Secretary Blake: We were very disappointed that President Ahmadinejad exploited his opportunity to speak at the RECCA Conference which is a conference that’s supposed to focus on regional economic integration; that he exploited this opportunity to criticize the United States and its NATO partners and to make unfounded accusations about our policy in Afghanistan. So we decided to leave to protest those unfounded accusations because of course we wouldn’t have had an opportunity to respond to them.
Now, the proposal for a Kashgar-Herat railway has been around for a while, and has plenty of obstacles to overcome, not least a lack of funding. But you could say the same, and more, about the U.S.-promoted TAPI project.
Another regional integration project that has recently been reinvigorated is the International North-South Corridor, which would involve developing rail, road and sea routes between India and Russia via Central Asia -- and, of course, Iran. That will likely be part of the discussion at the BRICS summit going on now in India, but of course, the U.S. won't get involved in that, either. It seems like the regional integration train could be leaving the station, with the U.S. standing on the platform watching it go.