An Iranian canal from the Caspian to the Gulf

The difference between the two projects is that the first one is realistic while the second one is imaginary...

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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The news of the construction of a bridge over the Red Sea to connect Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and thus connect Asia to Africa, caught the attention of many. This is indeed a historical step that has political and economic ramifications. Within the same context of regional relations, the Iranian minister of energy announced a plan that connects the Caspian Sea with the Arab Gulf via a canal.

The difference between the two projects is that the first one is realistic while the second one is imaginary. Geographically connecting Saudi Arabia to Egypt is possible at the construction level especially after finalizing of the arrangements regarding the Tiran and Sanafir islands, which were returned to Saudi Arabia. However, digging a canal that's more than 1,000 kilometers long faces many considerable difficulties.

Of course, there's nothing that obstructs the residents of the Caspian Sea from cooperating to build a canal that ends the isolation of the world's largest inland water body which Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Iran overlook. Iran is the only country that’s talking about digging the canal which it says will cost $7 billion, i.e. double the cost of constructing the Saudi-Egyptian bridge.

Iran’s suggested canal only serves five countries and there are many difficulties when it comes to digging it due to the Iranian terrains

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

There are estimates which suggest that the real cost of building the Iranian canal will be three times the announced cost as it will require more than $7 billion to dig more than 1,000 kilometers and the distance may be double depending on the path which is finally agreed upon.

Therefore, the project is most probably part of the Iranian government's political propaganda. Proof of this is that the party assigned to dig the canal is not a respectable construction company but said to be the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Iranian militia whom the Azerbaijani government accuses of terrorist activities against it. This is in addition to its alleged armed activities in Syria and Iraq!

The Iranian model

The Iranian model for a canal was inspired by the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea and which has always inspired Iran and the rest of the Khazar Sea - the old name of the Caspian - residents with the idea to build a canal similar to it. The Suez Canal serves the world and it was improved last year as it was expanded. The New Suez Canal was built in record time as it was constructed in just one year.

However, Iran’s suggested canal only serves five countries and there are many difficulties when it comes to digging it due to the Iranian terrains and to the fact that it passes through mountainous areas, earthquake zones and heavily-populated areas.

According to the description of an Azeri expert, Chingiz Ismailov, the project is an environmental adventure that's dangerous to Iran itself and to the Caspian Sea which depends on the water of the Russian Volga River. He voiced doubt about the seriousness of the announcement to build the canal, adding that assigning a construction task to a terrorist organization and granting it $2 million only show that announcing this canal may be no more than political propaganda.

Does digging a canal that uses Gulf waters that ends in the Caspian Sea require the approval of other Gulf countries, like the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Iraq? I don't know, but Azerbaijan considers that Iran's announcement of the canal project violates the rights of the Caspian Sea countries as the latter's approval must be attained.

Like the Gulf, the Caspian is an important source of oil to the world, and in case the canal is built, Iran will aspire to be a source and passage for petroleum instead of - or perhaps in addition to - establishing the pipeline project the construction of which has been obstructed for many years.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on April 13, 2016.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed

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