Transport routes are like rivers, where water always fi nds a way to continue its fl ow. It is not a coincidence that transport routes are often referred to as arteries. But what comes first – a riverbed or the water, the fi rst representing the strategic will of states and the second the contents, i.e. goods resulting from the balance of interests between businesses and consumers? Global trade routes such as the North–South Project can be viewed as social and economic phenomena largely shaped by the political will of the countries that promote these trade corridors based on their understanding of common interests.
With the signing of an agreement between Iran, Russia, and India in September 2000 to initiate the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC), it seemed that the regional geopolitical landscape in Eurasia would be spared any further signifi cant changes while trade and the economic activity were expected to gain positive traction. However, subsequent developments have proven this view to be exceedingly optimistic, marked by several minor economic nosedives, the US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, the expansion of China’s influence in Central Asia and the emergence of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as the revival of economic sanctions against Iran and the start of a large-scale trade war against Russia. All these developments also undermined trade, in addition to decreasing the role of the INSTC.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the agreement between the three countries to launch this trade corridor, it has to be recognised that few steps were taken to make this project a reality, despite the assurances by Iranian, Russian, and Indian politicians on the need to promote the INSTC.
All the more, it has to be noted, at this stage the project does not require substantial investment. In fact, the INSTC already exists in the shape of a number of sparse transport infrastructure fragments with its capacity ranging from 5 million tons (for Iran’s and Azerbaijan’s railways) all the way to tens of millions of tons per year for Russian and Iranian seaports, as well as the high throughput capacity of Belarussian railway network as part of the Trans-European Transport Networks. INSTC also relies on a dense network of motor roads of varying quality and significance, as well as the possibility to ship goods through the Caspian Sea ports.
That said, the project can hardly aspire to become a key transport corridor and an economic development driver (de facto offering a regional integration platform) unless it can acquire two key elements: robust trade that would attract new flows and the corresponding investment and industrial complexes along the transport corridor.