IN a move invested with potential political significance, Iran is poised to exploit its geographical location as a strategic crossroads between East and West.
In ceremonies scheduled for next month, Iranian officials will inaugurate a rail line that will turn the Islamic state into a primary outlet for Europe- and Middle East-bound commerce from several former Soviet states and eventually, Iranian officials hope, even China.
The line, which will link Mashhad, in Iran, with Tedzhen, in Turkmenistan, will provide the Asian republics with the access to warm-water ports that Russian czars and Soviet commissars fought to obtain for more than a century. More important to American policymakers, it could compromise US-led efforts to keep the Islamic state - a leading opponent of the Middle East peace process and alleged sponsor of terrorism - weak and isolated.
"The symbolism of it is important: By opening the door to wider relations and networks, it defeats the purpose of keeping Iran an isolated, pariah state," says a Europe-based expert on Iran. "But the more of these networks that exist, the more they could moderate Iran's behavior."
"In the long run, it's very much in America's interest to have the central Asian countries have access to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf via Iran, and not to be so dependent on Russia or Azerbaijan," adds Geoffrey Kemp, a Middle East expert at the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom in Washington.
Europe-bound exports from the Asian republics must now be shipped by rail through Russia, which is less direct, or across the Caspian Sea and through the Caucasus and eastern Turkey, which are politically unstable.
The leaders of Iran and at least 10 Central Asian nations will gather May 13 in Sarakhs, on the Turkmenistan border, for ceremonies opening a 185-mile stretch of track in the two countries that will link Central Asia to Europe and the Mideast through Iran's Persian Gulf.
About half the torturous route passes through mountains, requiring three long tunnels, 19 long bridges, and 450 short bridges, according to a press release issued by the Iranian news agency, IRNA.
The rail link is not expected to produce an immediate economic windfall for Iran, though Iranian sources predict that it will eventually provide an annual income of $280 million from port revenues and transit fees. The line will also strengthen Iran's ties with Islamic nations that are already on friendly terms with Tehran.
"Our country is like a gem surrounded by 15 countries, the majority of which depend on a passage from Iran in their foreign trade and exchange of goods," Iran's minister of economic and financial affairs, Morteza Mohammad Khan, told an Iranian monthly recently.
"With the Basq-Bandar-e Abbas railroad joining the nationwide railway network, our country will be linked to Asia and Europe," adds an Iranian official quoted in Sanat-e Hami-o Naghl, an Iranian magazine dealing with transportation issues. He was referring to a recently completed rail spur to one of Iran's busiest ports.
PROFITS from Iran's commercial links with central Asia could swell if - as Tehran hopes - pipelines are built to carry some of the vast oil and gas reserves in the Caspian Sea basin to Iranian ports on the Gulf.
Iranian officials foresee a day - far distant in the estimation of many outside experts - when the soon-to-be-completed stretch from Mashhad to Tedzhen will be a key link in a rail line that will extend all the way to China, roughly paralleling the historic Silk Road.
Just as enticing to Iranian visionaries - and just as remote, in the estimation of outside experts - is the possibility of eventually linking Singapore and Europe by rail along a more southerly route.
Iran is now planning to fill in a crucial section of the route with a rail line between Kerman and Zahedan in southeastern Iran. Far more problematical will be connecting Thailand and Bangladesh by rail.
The Silk Road was the primary avenue of commerce between China and the Mideast and southern Europe between the 2nd century BC and the dawn of the industrial age, when steamships began carrying cargo faster and cheaper.
Persia, as Iran was known, was a crucial link in the 4,000-mile overland route. In Persia, the road forked into two branches, one reaching the coast of the Black Sea through Asia Minor, the other extending through modern Iraq to the Mediterranean.
"Today, it is not possible to revive the Silk Road because of the high road-building costs, whereas the railway can play the same role," the head of Iran's state-run railway told an Iranian business magazine last year.
The imminent Mashhad-Sarakhs-Tedzhen rail link to central Asia was made possible by two recent developments: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Iran and the states that emerged from Kremlin rule.
Russian and Soviet leaders "constantly schemed and interfered in Iran and Afghanistan's internal affairs and even waged wars in hopes of securing themselves some kind of passage to the Persian Gulf," notes the Sanat-e Hami-o Naghl. "Today, almost a century later, this dream has come true but in ways that neither Peter the Great nor Khrushchev would have ever imagined."
"We don't want Iran to earn extra revenue to carry out objectionable policies," says a US official. "But we need to balance the need to maintain pressure on Iran against the imperative for these states to maintain viable economies."