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ASIA: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has welcomed proposals for the reopening of a rail link between Iran and its northwestern neighbour Azerbaijan.

Speaking at a meeting with the governor of Iran’s largely Azeri-speaking province of East Azerbaijan on February 18, Zarif pointed out the potential for the development of trade and economic relations with Azerbaijan and for transit to other countries in the region.

The reopening of the link from Jolfa in Iran to neighbouring Culfa across the border in Azerbaijan’s Naxçıvan exclave ‘is necessary for Iran’s access to neighbouring countries and the Eurasian market’, he emphasised.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan reported on February 14 that work had started on rebuilding the 100 km east–west railway between Horadiz and Culfa, to connect the capital Baku to the Naxçıvan exclave. Originally constructed during the Soviet era, the line runs along the Azeri and Armenian side of the River Aras which forms the Iranian border and has been closed since 1993 as a result of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Reopening of the east–west railway and its onward connections would also provide a north–south corridor linking Iran with Azerbaijan, Russia and Georgia, as well as potentially Armenia.

The route from Baku enters Culfa from the east. One branch runs north through Naxçıvan to the Armenian capital Yerevan, and another turns south across the River Aras to Jolfa in Iran, from where the RAI network runs south to Tabriz and Tehran. A westward connection from Sufian on this line links Iran to Van in Turkey via the border crossing at Razi.

A proposed cross-border rail link between Naxçıvan and eastern Turkey bypassing Armenia was announced last year; if built, this would give Iran a second outlet towards Europe, reducing its dependence on the Lake Van train ferry.

Work continues in Iran on the Astara – Rasht line along the western side of the Caspian Sea, in order to complete the long planned north south corridor linking Russia with the Persian Gulf. A rail bridge has been opened across the River Astaraçay which forms the border between the two countries in the twin towns of Astara, but the line currently terminates a short way inside Iranian territory.