LONDON, May 13 -- A new rail link was launched Monday in Iran, reviving the memory of the ancient Silk Road, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported. The Mashhad-Sarakhs-Tajan railway also for the first time provides landlocked Central Asian republics with a route to the Gulf, via Iran, and the Mediterranean, through Turkey. The agency, monitored in London, said Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, accompanied by a number of government leaders and senior officials from some 45 countries, boarded the train at the holy city of Mashhad for the Iran-Turkmenistan border. The train was expected to make a short stop on the border for unveiling a memorial, before continuing its journey to the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan. The construction on the project began in 1992 and cost Iran and Turkmenistan $216 million. The 200 BC silk route, from China to the Mediterranean, was famous for trade in jade, gold, silver, silk, spices and pottery, although the rail link is expected to enable the developing countries in its path to deal in commodities more basic to their economic development. The 177-mile (295-km) stretch of new track runs from Mashhad in northeast Iran to Sarakhs on Iran-Turkmenistan border, joining the Turkmenistan railway network at Tajan. Officials say the railway provides the missing link in the poorly used but largely intact trans-Asian railroad system that spans Instanbul, Turkey, in the west and the Chinese capital Beijing in the east. They say the new line cuts the transit time for goods and passenger traffic from Europe to Southeast Asia by about a week.
The agency quoted Rafsanjani as saying the expansion of communications, roads and railway network, and hence access to world markets can 'enhance amity, confidence and trust among governments and lead to mutual understanding and greater solidarity.' He thanked Turkmenistan for its share in building the railway, and Turkmen President Saparmyrat Niyazov in particular for his 'personal interest' in the project. 'The recent global developments demonstrate the world is moving toward greater regional cooperation, and sustained and regionally coordinated economic growth and development will consolidate peace and stability and pave the way for enhancement of international relations,' the Iranian leader said. The railway line will initially be able to carry 500,000 passengers and three million tons of goods a year, rising to one million passengers and eight million tons of goods within the next few years. Iran's regional trade is thriving but the country faces increasing sanctions, imposed by the United States which sees Tehran as fomenting alleged terrorism, a charge Iran has denied. The agency quoted unnamed Iranian officials as saying the rail link was 'the first concrete achievement in Iran's strategy to build its role as a regional economic power.' Officials expect the rail link to spur economic, political, social and cultural exchange among the regional states. Among other projects being considered by Iran is a further rail link between Mashhad and its central town of Bafq, about 552 miles (921 km) to the southwest. That link will give Central Asia a shorter rail route to the southern Iranian port of Khorramshahr on the Gulf, bypassing Tehran altogether, but there has so far been no indication when the link will be built. A special three-day exhibition is being held in conjunction with the inuguration of the new railway. Also on the occasion, the ECO Airline, named after the Economic Cooperation Organization, was officially launched when its plane landed at Almas international airport at Sarakhs. The airport's runway is being expanded to receive wide bodied jets and to boost air traffic between Iran and and its northern neighbors. The Iranian authorities say the airport will be capable of handling three million passengers and 150,000 tons of cargo annually. Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan and six Central Asian republics are members of Tehran-based ECO. sin-sc-m