Iranian officials applaud on the platform as the first train connecting China and Iran arrives at Tehran Railway Station on February 15, 2016
Arrival: first train to Tehran brought goods from Zhejiang province © AFP

Alireza Saadat started to trace and document Iran’s segment of the ancient Silk Road four years ago.

The 47-year-old, who works on conservation and restoration of archeological sites, has, together with three female companions, been cycling along the route, which connected the east to the west through Persia — stopping frequently to gather information on trade and culture.

They started at Iran’s north-east border with Turkmenistan and they have got as far as Soltaniyeh, about 250km north-west of Tehran.

“Revival of the Silk Road can help prevent more villages on the route from being demolished by helping them generate income by revival of overland trade,” says Mr Saadat. “This way we can also help keep their culture, religions and dialects.”

The centrist government of Hassan Rouhani has welcomed China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) plan to revive the Silk Road. Tehran hopes the project will facilitate Sino-Iran trade and turn the country into a significant Eurasian trade hub.

The first freight train to travel the old Silk Road arrived in Tehran in mid-February, bearing goods from China’s eastern Zhejiang province and making the journey through Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in 14 days — compared with around 45 days by sea.

However, if Iran is to play a significant part in Chinese plans, it must expand and modernise its 85-year-old national railway network, which currently stretches over 11,000km, and carries 36m tons of cargo and 26m passengers a year.

Travel by road is more popular, thanks to cheap fuel in the oil-rich country. Iran’s railways account for only 12 per cent of domestic transport, with plans to raise this to 30 per cent over the next decade.

“Our goal in the Silk Road plan is first to connect Iran’s market to China’s via railway for our domestic consumption and second to send Iranian and Chinese products to European markets,” says Hossein Ashoori, deputy head for international transportation of the Railways of the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Iran’s goal is not really Central Asia.”

Chinese products transported via Iran could include minerals and petrochemicals, he adds, while Iranians could export pistachios and carpets.

Iran-China trade was worth $51.8bn in 2014, according to official Chinese statistics — up 31 per cent on the previous year’s $39.54bn and a big increase from around $4bn in 2003. This was partly caused by international sanctions over the nuclear programme which further isolated the Islamic Republic. During Chinese President Xi Jinping ‘s visit to Iran this year, the two sides agreed to increase trade to $600bn over the next decade.

Since July 2015, when Iran reached its landmark nuclear agreement with the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany, European and Asian business delegations have been visiting Iran to explore the potential of one of the world’s most untapped markets.

Development of the national railway is one of Iran’s infrastructure-building priorities. Iran has signed contracts with France and Germany to renovate stations and restructure the railway system while it has signed an agreement with Italy for a high-speed train between Tehran and the historical city of Isfahan.

Mr Ashoori says transit of goods through Iran had already increased by 90 per cent in 2015 compared with the year before. Iran’s railway extends to Turkmenistan and Turkey and plans are under way to connect it to Iraq and Afghanistan and later on to Azerbaijan and Pakistan. “Considering the crisis in the region and Iran’s unique security, this is the best time to expand Iran’s railway transportation,” he says.

The developments have not been met with universal enthusiasm. A senior agricultural history researcher, Mohammad Hassan Abrishami, has just finished writing a book that suggests silk was produced in northeastern parts of Persia and the southern shores of Caspian Sea in 1000BC — long before the product was known to China. Mr Abrishami warns officials to be “careful and not forget that the old trade also paved the ground for foreign forces’ interference”.

But for Mr Saadat the Silk Road has been “the road of peace” along which ethnicities have long coexisted. “The Silk Road is not only for trade of goods,” he says. “Roads transfer culture, religions and technology as well.”

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