The dredging of the canal will allow Russian, Chinese, Iranian, Indian and other cargo ships to carry more heavy shipments to and from the Caspian to Europe, Eurasia specialist and former adviser to the US Secretary of State, Paul Goble, wrote in an article published by The Jamestown Foundation. Excerpts follow:
For Iran, as well as China, involvement in this effort is geoeconomically and geopolitically beneficial because it will help Russia overcome some of the bottlenecks that plague both its existing infrastructure and Moscow’s ability to address these problems on its own. But perhaps more importantly, this dredging operation will further strengthen the emerging Moscow-Tehran axis, integrate Iran into the Russian-Chinese alliance, counter Turkish and Western influence in the region, as well as threaten Ukraine.
However, Moscow’s willingness to allow Tehran to join China in dredging the Volga-Caspian Seaway Canal is even more crucial, as it integrates Iran into the Russian-Chinese alliance in the military and economic spheres.
The Kremlin’s decision to involve Iran in the dredging project came earlier this week and comes on the heels of two other decisions, one allowing Chinese dredging companies to take part in this operation and the other allowing Tehran to use its own ships in the Volga-Caspian Seaway Canal.
The two Russian government agencies involved, the Russian Sea and River Fleet Authority and Russian Port Authority, say Iran’s involvement will allow the Russian authorities to deepen the canal to 4.5 meters. At present, Russian officials maintain that the canal is 3.5-meters deep. However, they also acknowledge that, in many places, silting has reduced the depth further and, as a result, ships that could traverse the canal at that depth cannot use it during periods of the year when water coming into the canal is reduced, thus diminishing its economic and military significance.
If the current effort does succeed in deepening the canal to 4.5 meters along its entire route, almost all categories of ships in the Caspian Sea will then be able to shift to the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, something Moscow has long desired.
Beyond the technical considerations, analysts in Moscow are most excited about the growth and expansion of the Caspian Sea as a trade conduit between Russia and Iran while helping their country solidify its ties with Iran, India and China, and even end-run Western sanctions.
Some commentators are even describing such a development as a potential path toward the reordering of international trade. More immediately, they are talking about ways in which trade between Russian and Iran via the Caspian Sea can overcome some of the problems created by instability in the South Caucasus and the limitations of railroads in Central Asia.
But even the most enthusiastic of analysts acknowledge that real problems are looming and that, even if the Volga-Caspian Seaway Canal is deepened, it may not provide the economic boost they forecast.
They point out that Iran does not possess enough ships, especially roll-on/roll-off vessels, to make much of a difference and that Astrakhan Port, the most natural place for ships heading to the canal, is not ice free year-round. The alternative of using Makhachkala Port in Dagestan makes a rail route, rather than a canal route, more economically viable.
Further, they suggest that the expansion of rail lines east and west of the Caspian Sea may be a better approach moving forward as far as north-south trade is concerned, at least for the immediate future.