The news that a bridge will be built over the Red Sea connecting Saudi Arabia to Egypt and therefore the two continents of Asia and Africa has attracted the attention of many people because it is a historic step with political and economic implications. In the same context of regional relations, the Iranian Minister of Energy announced a project to connect the Caspian Sea to the Arabian Gulf with a water canal.
The difference between the two projects is that the first is realistic whilst the second is fanciful. Linking Saudi Arabia and Egypt geographically is structurally possible, especially after arrangements regarding the islands of Tiran and Al-Sanafir were finalised and they were returned to Saudi Arabia. Digging a canal that is longer than 1,000 kilometres, on the other hand, will encounter great difficulties.
Of course, there is nothing to prevent all the residents of the Caspian Sea from building a canal that would end the isolation of the largest lake in the world which Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan and Iran overlook.
Iran alone is talking about digging the canal which it says will cost $7 billion (double the construction costs of the Egyptian – Saudi bridge project). There are estimates that show that the actual amount that the Iranian canal will cost will be three times the announced amount.
For this reason, it is more likely that the project is political propaganda on behalf of the Iranian government. Evidence for this is the fact that the party assigned to dig the canal is not a well-known construction company, but the Revolutionary Guards itself; the Iranian militia who is accused by the Azerbaijani government of terrorist activities against it, in addition to armed activity in Syria and Iraq!
The Iranian idea to build a canal was inspired by the Suez Canal which has long inspired Iranians and the rest of the peoples of the Khazar Sea, which is the old name for the Caspian Sea. The Suez Canal serves the world and was strengthened last year with the addition of a parallel canal that was dug in record time; just one year. As for Iran’s proposed canal, it will serve five countries and face many difficulties because of Iranian terrain as the canal will pass through mountainous, seismic and densely populated areas.
According to the description of one Azeri expert, Jinkiz Ismailov, the project poses a serious environmental threat to Iran itself as well as the Caspian Sea, which depends on the water of the Russian Volga River. He questioned the seriousness of the announcement and the fact that a terrorist organisation was tasked with an engineering project. The fact that they were given just $2 million shows that the canal announcement may be no more than merely an act of political propaganda.
Does digging a canal that will drink from the waters of the Gulf and discharge water into the Caspian Sea require the approval of other Gulf states such as the six GCC countries and Iraq? I do not know, but Azerbaijan considers Iran’s announcement about the canal project to violate the rights of the Caspian states, and said that their approval must be obtained. The Caspian Sea, like the Gulf, is an important source of oil to the world. In the event that the canal is built, Iran will aspire to be a source and pathway for petroleum instead of, and perhaps in addition to the pipeline project which has been hindered for a long time.