Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Central Asian Rail Link Praised as New Silk Road

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- With solemn poetry and lavish tributes to its leader, Turkmenistan is hailing a new railway link opening Monday between Iran and Central Asia as "the most important transport junction on the planet."

Author Atamurad Atabayev, writing in a 100-verse poem published in the official daily Neutral Turkmenistan, compared the link to the ancient silk road trading route through Asia.

"A path lies before us. We will raise ourselves to new heights of Turkmen dignity, pride and honor," Atabayev wrote.

And rail workers wrote in open letters of their happiness at "this sacred hour," lavishing praise on President Saparmurat Niyazov -- the self-styled Turkmenbashi, or Turkmen chief.

Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Niyazov will host 12 heads of state and 700 dignitaries and journalists at the official opening of the Mashhad to Sarakhs to Tedzhen railway.

The railway opens up new trade routes between regions that under Soviet communism were hermetically sealed, joining Iran's Gulf ports to the former Soviet hinterland and knocking up to 10 days off transit times from Europe to Southeast Asia.

"Iran remains the crossroads where East meets West," the English-language Iran News wrote Sunday. The route would make Iran the hub between Asia, Europe and the Middle East, it added.

Iran and Turkmenistan agreed in 1991 to tie their railway networks. Iran self-financed the $171 million, 165-kilometer Mashhad to Sarakhs stretch, which it completed in 42 months.

Turkmenistan's Sarakhs to Tedzhen link, running for 130 kilometers, was finished in late 1995 at a cost of $45 million.

Transport capacity initially will be 500,000 passengers a year and two million tons of goods, rising eventually to 1 million passengers and 8 million tons.

Iran, subject to a U.S. economic embargo, is hailing the railway as the first concrete achievement in building its role as a regional economic power.

It is using the Economic Cooperation Organization, or ECO, founded with Pakistan and Turkey, as a springboard to pursue its economic agenda.

ECO was expanded in 1992 to include the former Soviet Central Asian states -- Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan -- plus Azerbaijan and Afghanistan. The group spans 7 million square kilometers and is home to over 300 million people.

"The activation of ECO is to the benefit of all countries of the region," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati told Western journalists Saturday.

Heads of state will hold ECO's fourth summit Tuesday and Wednesday in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat and are expected to agree to a redrafting of the ECO founding treaty already hammered out by foreign ministers.

In addition to improving transport links, ECO has created a joint shipping company. It is setting up a trade and development bank and a reinsurance company. A joint airline, Eco Air, should fly for the first time in a few days.

But the new-look ECO institutions are still very weak, and trade is blocked by tariff barriers, bureaucratic obstacles, friction between neighbor states.

Despite rosy Iranian declarations, the Central Asian market may not show promise for several years to come -- monthly wages average $10 in Turkmenistan and Iranian shop owners here said many local consumers could not afford the most basic goods.

ECO foreign ministers said Saturday the group was not yet fit to compete with Asian, American and European blocs. Iran called for tariffs to be scrapped.

"We have entered the race late, and we need to make up for lost time," Pakistan Foreign Minister Sardar Asef Ali said.