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Iran in talks with Taliban to resume ambitious rail venture

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TEHRAN: An Iranian official revealed that they are holding talks with the Taliban to resume the construction of an ambitious rail project that ultimately aims to connect at least five Central Asian countries.

Iran has been Afghanistan’s top trade partner in recent years and is a key provider of fuel to its eastern neighbor.

But Iran has yet to officially recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, with the administration of President Ebrahim Raisi saying that would hinge on the formation of an “inclusive” government in Afghanistan.

Abbas Khatibi, a deputy head of the Construction and Development of Transportation Infrastructures Company of Iran, quoted as saying Iran is ready to make further investments and both sides are willing to finish construction on a rail line connecting Khaf in northeastern Iran with Herat in northwestern Afghanistan.

Project could boost trade and reduce transit costs, Khatibi added.

“This rail line can also link Afghanistan with Iran’s southern ports,” he said, adding that when fully complete, the project could eventually carve a path linking China to Turkey.

The project is part of a proposed $2bn Five Nations Railway Corridor (FNRC) which would run through China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Iran for an estimated 2,000km (1,242 miles).

More than half of the project is proposed for Afghanistan, running through several provinces, including Kunduz and Herat.

The first section of the four-part Khaf-Herat railway was inaugurated in December 2020 and linked Khaf with the Afghan town of Rozanak about 150km (93 miles) away.

But plans to complete the line and expand its reach to Afghanistan’s third-largest city of Herat were thrown off course when the former Afghan government collapsed amid a chaotic exit by the United States and Western forces in August.

Khatibi, the Iranian official, said the Khaf-Herat project is estimated to cost 4.3 trillion rials (about $17m), and that Iran has made proposals with “various investment methods” without further elaborating.

He also said the rail line – which runs for 225km, 77km of which is in Iran – would have the capacity to transport up to one million passengers and six million tonnes of goods each year.

Khatibi said a 657km track in Afghanistan between Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif is currently the biggest “missing link” in the overall project, and if completed, it would signal a major transformation in regional transit.

A 26-member Taliban delegation visited Iran last month. The Taliban has not commented on the proposed railway project.

The Taliban has appealed to the international community to recognize its so-called Islamic Emirate as it faces diplomatic isolation. Western sanctions mean the country has been cut off from international financial institutions and aid has dropped to a trickle in a country where more than half of the population faces food insecurity.

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