The Province of Gilan borders Azerbaijan and is located on the Caspian Sea. For years, Iran has been seeking to develop its rail network that includes a north-south corridor named for the city of Astara, which links Iran to the Caucasus. The rail line was supposed to go via Qazvin to Rashta and then north to Azerbaijan.
According to a 2017 report in the English-language Iranian newspaper Financial Tribune, Azerbaijan had invested $500 million on its side of the border. The project was delayed on the Iranian side but is now expected to finally be opened. The 164 Qazvin-Rasht section is a key to the North-South Transportation Corridor that will theoretically link India to Europe via this rail network.
Iran is getting ready to put into operation the Qazvin-Rasht railway to join the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and connect to India and Europe via railroad network. This would make transport shorter and cheaper and benefit Iran and other states along the way.
It comes as Iran is fighting against the US sanctions that were imposed last year. Iran had sought to complete the corridor during the time it was free from sanctions after the 2015 Iran Deal.
At Rasht Airport, journalists were told that 290 million Iranian Tomans had been invested and that a free-trade zone named Anzali would also benefit from this project on the Caspian Sea.
The reports indicate that the project is part of larger plans by Tehran for another project linking Iran to China via Kazakhstan. Both of these developments could help China in its Belt and Road Initiative, which foresees an economic channel through Tehran connecting Iran and Turkey and the West.
Strategically, what Iran is hoping to do in Gilan Province is to prepare itself to withstand the US sanctions and even benefit in coming years, as it works with states that disagree with US policy, including Turkey, Russia and others. It hopes to reap the benefits of the winding down of the Syrian conflict and position itself to improve its weakened economy.
Last year, Israeli officials travelled to the Gulf and there have been hints at increased Israeli economic ties with countries in the region. Iran’s network bypasses Israel, and it is clear that, much like the disputes over natural gas and pipelines in the region, that the economic strategy goes hand-in-hand with the larger geo-political changes in the Middle East.