Staunton, April 9 – Now that Russia and Iran are close to opening a rail link between the two countries (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2016/04/north-south-rail-corridor-linking.html), Moscow and Tehran have renewed discussions on an even more gigantic project – the building of a canal between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
A week ago, Mehdi Sanan, Iran’s ambassador to Moscow, told an audience at St. Petersburg State University that Russia and Iran are again talking about the construction of such a canal, although Olga Samofalova of “Vzglyad” notes that he provided no additional details about these discussions (vzglyad.ru/economy/2016/4/8/804331.html).
Like many such Russian gigantist projects, including plans for the ill-starred Siberian river diversion of water to Central Asia, the idea of creating a canal across Iran to undercut Turkish control of the straits has a long history extending back more than a century to the years before World War I.
The project would link the world’s largest inland sea to the world ocean via a path of some 700 kilometers and would cost, Iranian experts said in 2012-2013 approximately 20 billion US dollars. Even if construction began now, they suggested, the canal would not be operational before sometime in the 2020s.
In additional to cost, the project faces both opposition from outside powers, Turkey in the first instance but also Turkey’s supporters in Europe and the United States, and technical problems as well. The Caspian Sea is 27 to 29 meters lower than sea level, and water would have to be pushed into the canal and locks constructed in order to move shipping along it.
Samofalova cites a detailed article in the February 2016 issue of Moscow’s “Voyenno-Promyshlenny kuryer” by Aleksey Chichkin concernring the checkered history of discussions of such a canal. That article is available online at vpk-news.ru/articles/29010.
Russian talk about such a canal began at the end of the 1890s, Chichkin says; but because of the war and revolution, the idea did not gain traction. On the one hand, Turkey at that time was an ally of Soviet Russia; and on the other, British influence in Iran kept the Russians from expanding their role there.
During World War II, Turkey’s control of the straits and the Soviet occupation of northern Iran led Moscow to renew discussions on a trans-Iran canal. These also went nowhere. But “in the 1960s, a Soviet-Iranian commission on a possible canal was established” and noted during visits to Tehran by Leonid Brezhnev and Aleksey Kosygin.
Despite American, Turkish, and Saudi opposition, Soviet-Iranian conversations about such a canal continued albeit very quietly and slowly, Chirkin says. But the project took on new life in the mid-1990s, when Russian and Iranian officials resumed regular meetings on the possible construction of such a canal.
The West’s imposition of sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program had the effect of putting all these discussions on hold, but now that sanctions have been lifted, “it is not surprising,” Samofalova says, that Moscow and Tehran are again focusing on this project as something real and achievable.