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Sharmine Narwani: Syrian Opposition is not United and Cohesive

Interview by Kourosh Ziabari | FNA | December 8, 2013

TEHRAN – Syria is entrapped in a mesmerizing and unusual conflict these days. Fighters from more than 80 countries, mostly the European and Arab allies of the United States, have taken up arms against the Syrian government and persistently push for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad from power. Opinion polls, however, show that the majority of Syrians support President Assad and want him to remain in power.

Thousands of innocent civilians have lost their lives in the clashes that have erupted in the recent months between the Army forces and the foreign-backed mercenaries, and the international community is divided over finding a definite solution to the crisis in Syria.

Political commentator and Middle East geopolitics analyst Sharmine Narwani believes that the United States, fearing the growing domestic and international popularity of President Assad, has long sought the destabilization of Syria with the final objective of breaking down the axis of resistance comprising Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

Sharmine Narwani said in an exclusive interview with Fars News Agency that the Syrian opposition forces have been “funded and assembled by foreign foes of Syria for geopolitical gain”.

She said the goal of the opposition was to unseat Assad so that they could then come in and establish their own foreign-backed “dictatorship” at the heart of the Resistance Axis.

“The reason this opposition has never been able to articulate a cohesive, inclusive, political platform for the Syrian people is because they are all backed by different, sometimes competing, interests, and because their goal is not a politically reformed Syria, but instead the establishment of their own power and economic bases,” she added.

Sharmine Narwani is a political commentator and analyst of Mideast geopolitics. She is currently a Senior Associate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University and a blogger for Al Akhbar English in Lebanon. She has a Master of International Affairs (MIA) degree in both Mideast studies and journalism from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), and has written commentary for numerous publications including Al Jazeera English, the New York Times, The Guardian, USA Today, Huffington Post, BRICS Post, Asia Times Online and others.

What follows is the text of FNA’s interview with Ms. Narwani about the ongoing conflict in Syria and the future of war in the crisis-hit Arab country.

Q: The United States and its European and Arab allies have been calling for a military invasion of Syria for a long time. They view the military option as the only solution to the Syrian crisis. However, they are apparently ignoring the massive support of the Syrian people for President Assad as echoed in the street demonstrations of the pro-Assad citizens and the opinion polls which show that a strong majority of the Syrian people want President Assad to remain in power. Aren’t these states disregarding the will of the Syrian people?

A: The conflict in Syria today has been a long time in the making. For years, the US and its western allies have sought to undermine Iran’s influence in the Mideast by targeting its staunchest allies, Syria and Hezbollah. Wikileaks Cables show this quite clearly – a 2006 cable after the Israeli war on Lebanon shows US officials worried about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s improved domestic and regional status, and urges the development of a plan of action to “exploit vulnerabilities” – sectarian, economic, political – that could chip away at his legitimacy.

The Arab Uprisings provided a unique opportunity for the US and its allies to exploit the narratives of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and impose them on Syria through blatant media propaganda and subversive activities on the ground. I have often wondered why, for instance, at the same time that Syrian government officials were offering conciliatory measures, dialogue and reforms to defuse tensions in early 2011, vulnerable Syrians in “hot” areas were being sniped at. From the start of events in Syria there has been a determined effort by its adversaries to use sabotage, assassinations, political violence and information warfare to whip up popular sentiment and sway large segments of the populations into supporting a rebellion.

I can’t speak for the veracity of polls taken during this conflict, but it isn’t hard to cobble together a picture of the population demographics that have supported Assad – or specifically, that have rejected the armed rebellion. You have the major cities (Aleppo and Damascus), minorities (Alawite, Druze, Christian, Kurds, Shiite), Baathists (3 million members, most Sunni), the armed forces, the business community, the government elite – most of whom have rejected the militarization of the opposition, if not outright supported Assad. This, in itself, constitutes millions and millions of Syrians whose voices have been entirely ignored until recently.

Karen Koning AbuZayd, a UN commissioner for the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, said much the same thing earlier this year about persistent support for Assad inside Syria: “There’s quite a number of the population, maybe as many as half – if not more – that stand behind him.”

Q: What do you think about the activities of the foreign-backed rebels and mercenaries who have taken up arms against the Syrian government and are hell-bent on removing President Assad from power? Why are the foreign powers backing, financing and arming them? Isn’t it strange that even some of the Arab states in the region have joined them and are contributing to the destabilization of Syria?

A: The armed opposition has been opportunistic and bloody from the start, targeting security forces, on and off duty, and pro-government civilians since March 2011. While there were indeed Syrian army defectors who joined the “revolution” early on in the conflict in response to government clampdowns and/or their own genuine political sentiments, much of the armed rebellion has been funded, assisted and organized from outside Syria’s borders. We know, for instance, that non-Syrians were entering the country right from the beginning – we have video, photographic and anecdotal evidence of this happening over the Lebanese border, for example. These people were provided with wages, weapons, intelligence and training, with the expectation that a hard thrust against Assad’s government would unseat him in short shrift, much like what had already happened in other Arab states.

When this did not happen, foreign intervention increased substantially, always with the notion that “one more” big effort would cause Assad to fall. Whereas in the past, the enemy had been the US, some European states and Israel, we suddenly started to see the ferocious engagement of Arab regimes in the Syrian conflict – Qatar and Saudi Arabia, assisted by a smattering of other Persian Gulf states, Jordan, Turkey, and jihadists from all corners.

Each may have had their own reasons for participating, but at the core, the Arab states that threw weapons, funding and fighters at Syria were seeking to undermine the Resistance Axis in the region and to create a counter-revolution that would push back Arab popular uprisings against illegitimate regimes. For some though, the fight in Syria became existential. Saudi royals – who view the uprisings and Iran’s influence in the region as being a threat to their very survival – have said that a loss in Syria would mean the loss of their oil-rich, Shiite-dominated Eastern Province. It isn’t a very rational train of thought, but it has been the main impetus behind Saudi support for the armed rebellion.

Q: It sounds like the anti-Syrian opposition groups are not united and cannot follow a cohesive path. Some of them call for dialogue with the government to resolve the disputes, while some of them utterly reject any kind of negotiation, calling for the removal of President Assad and the dissolution of his government. What’s your viewpoint on this inconsistency and lack of harmony among the Syrian opposition?

A: I am assuming you are referring mainly to the externally-based Syrian opposition here. This opposition has been funded and assembled by foreign foes of Syria for geopolitical gain. Their goal was to unseat a “dictator” so that they could then come in and establish their own foreign-backed “dictatorship” at the heart of the Resistance Axis. The reason this opposition has never been able to articulate a cohesive, inclusive, political platform for the Syrian people is because they are all backed by different, sometimes competing, interests, and because their goal is not a politically reformed Syria, but instead the establishment of their own power and economic bases.

The lack of cohesion in this group and the embarrassing infighting that has plagued them from their inception, is a testament to the fact that you cannot just manufacture revolutions, assign leadership, cobble together “governments in exile.” Legitimacy comes from the people who are within the state. Leaders have to earn their positions, based on consensus of some kind that is accepted by the majority. Meanwhile, inside Syria, for nearly three years a peaceful domestic opposition has been ignored by foreign media and governments. These are activists who have credibility among their communities and have the potential to create grassroots movements that can exert pressure on the government to produce desired reforms. But these domestic opposition types were never empowered and encouraged. It goes to show that the foreign backers of the Syrian “revolution” were less interested in reform than they were in assuming power.

And no, I do not foresee the possibility of a last-minute delegation with common goals representing the “opposition” at Geneva talks. It is too late for some things. I believe the major issues that must be tackled to achieve a political solution will be resolved between the Syrian government and key regional and international players in advance of any Geneva talks. The “public” negotiations will just put a pretty face on things for mass consumption. Today, if you want a political solution, you first need the disarmament of the conflict – and this will not be an issue for Syrians to resolve, it is a concession that can only be wrenched from states that arm both the rebels and the Syrian armed forces.

As for whether Assad stays or goes, that is not something that should be decided by external parties at negotiations in Geneva. It is a choice for Syrians only. And I sincerely hope that the Syrian government is obliged to conduct transparent elections under the rigorous supervision of impartial, professional, international observers. It is the only way the next government can enjoy legitimacy.

Q: Why haven’t the international organizations, especially the UN Security Council, prevented the influx of illicit arms and weaponry into Syria which directly reach the rebels and insurgents who not only kill the Syrian army forces, but the innocent civilians, children and women? The Security Council surely knows that the smuggling of arms and ammunition to the rebels and mercenaries is taking place furtively, but it doesn’t condemn or take action to stop it. Why?

A: At this juncture in our collective political evolution, it befits us to be honest about what we call the “international community.” In effect, this term really only ever refers to those countries that politically and economically dominate our global political system. For the past few decades, “international community” has come to mean the United States and a handful of its allies. Even UN Security Council permanent members Russia and China haven’t truly counted. Nor have the next generation of fast-growth economies and major population centers like India, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa – until very recently. These second tier players have suddenly begun to insert themselves into critical political and economic developments – and Syria has been the theater in which some of these geopolitical battles have been fought.

The reason the UN and other western-dominated NGOs have not sought to impose punitive measures on parties that weaponized the Syrian conflict is simply because the UN and these NGOs are absolutely dominated by parties backing one side in this conflict. It was not in their interest to do so. Nobody understands the issue of weaponizing conflicts better than these groups – they have spent years churning out analyses and reports that document the dangers of “small arms” in conflict. They know better than anyone that weaponizing conflicts has a direct correlation with the breakdown of law and order, and that human rights violations spike dramatically. They know that even after “peace treaties” are signed, these weapons continue to change hands and keep conflict “humming.”

The fact is that the UN could not take action against the weaponization of the Syrian conflict because its dominant members were still seeking a military solution to oust Assad. Now that the US and key western allies are reassessing this route and are pursuing diplomatic solutions for a Syrian exit, we may see an altered NGO posture, where violators are named and punitive actions are taken. It is important to note that the only parties to have vocally advocated for the mutual de-weaponization of the conflict are those states outside the old international “power paradigm” like the BRICS and Iran.

Q: What’s your viewpoint on the state of Syrian refugees who have fled to the neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey? They are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, foodstuff, medicine and above all, a permanent shelter; however, it seems that there’s no entity assuming responsibility for them. How does their future life look? With the current destruction and instability imposed on Syria, can they foresee an early return to their homeland?

A: Nobody is assuming responsibility for them because refugee absorption requires money, which many states have preferred to throw at a military solution inside Syria. When I visited Syria in early 2012, an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told me very specifically, “if the fighting stops today people can return home tomorrow.” At that time, the biggest humanitarian problem they were facing was internal displacement, so he was mainly referring to the fact that continued violence from both sides inside towns and villages was the primary inhibitor of Syrians being able to return to their homes.

Today, that problem has grown exponentially with millions of refugees seeking safety outside Syria’s borders and even more millions being displaced internally. Again, for those interested in assisting refugees, I tell you that the moment the political violence and military operations cease, is the moment that these people can start returning to their communities. Obviously, this would have been easier a year ago – today, so many areas have been leveled by fighting with homes, schools, infrastructure destroyed, that there is sometimes nothing to go home to. But the best solution still remains one that involves rebuilding of communities – that’s where the international financial assistance should go, and not to resettling Syrians outside their countries or in unfamiliar areas within, which is why a solution to this conflict is urgent. We are approaching winter in the Levant, and it is unconscionable that international and regional parties cannot diplomatically agree to demilitarization of the Syrian conflict, so that more lives can be spared. Otherwise our attention will be turned from Syrians getting shot and bombed and beheaded, to Syrian starving and freezing to death.

Q: It was on the reports that US President Barack Obama has ordered a temporary lift on the arms ban to Syria so that certain weaponry and ammunitions could be delivered to the rebels and those whom Secretary of State John Kerry has called “moderate” terrorists. Isn’t this order somewhat hypocritical as the United States has always depicted itself an ardent opponent of terrorism and extremism? How is it possible to justify its overt support for the terrorists in Syria?

A: The US has acted very opportunistically inside Syria, prioritizing interests over values at every turn. It has tacitly and sometimes actively supported those individuals and groups which were Washington’s targets in a decade-long “war on terror.” Washington knows full well that weapons cannot be funneled specifically to “moderates” – rebels will sell them for good money at a moment’s notice, and many of these rebels change groups with great frequency. When Kerry first made that statement about arming the moderates, I got in touch with a US State Department spokesman and asked him repeatedly to name one “moderate” rebel group that “could” potentially be a recipient of American military largesse. He couldn’t.

As is the case with most US foreign policy in the Mideast, we now see an “unintended consequence” emerge – Salafi-Jihadist cells, gangs, militias and networks have grown like weeds, not just in Syria, but throughout the Levant, Persian Gulf and North Africa. This is the main reason the US is now reassessing its interests in Syria and the broader Mideast.

It is ironic that the US spent so many years allegedly fighting terror, when in fact its policies spawned an unprecedented growth in terror groups, networks and activities, both in and out of the Middle East. Today, this arm of American policy has been crippled by the challenges it faces against Salafi extremists. It is why Washington is rapidly altering its position vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran. The US actually needs Iran now to regionally lead the charge to eliminate these groups, secure borders and help stabilize a very chaotic region.

Q: And a final question; how does the future of Syria look? On one hand, we have the United States and its regional allies that seem to be strangely intractable and unwilling to allow the Syrian people to decide their fate, and on the other hand, there are the foreign-backed terrorists, Al-Qaeda fighters and Al-Nusra Front warriors that are carrying out bloody operations every single day. Can we foresee a peaceful future for Syria one day?

A: I’m a rare optimist on Syria. I firmly believe we have the potential to see the reestablishment of a secure and unified Syria with a modified and reformed central government.

I don’t believe that this can be achieved only via a political solution, however. As I said earlier, a political outcome must first be reached between the regional and international parties that weaponize the conflict. This is stage one. The next stage will need global consensus because it entails a massive military push to purge Syria and its neighbors of jihadists and their local brethren. This will consist of several things: aiding and empowering the Syrian army to use full military force against these groups inside Syria; a worldwide effort to inhibit the financing of militants by individuals and states and slapping punitive measures against violators; heavily policed borders in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon.

This may not be easy, but it is not difficult either – if the political will is there. And I believe we are coming to that stage – where Syria’s western and Arab foes, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, Israel and wealthy financiers of jihad, have fully realized the dangers of allowing this conflict to continue and political violence to escalate to these levels. Jihadists from dozens of countries, from all continents, have found a haven in Syria, and are spreading with relative impunity into neighboring states. If this trend is not stemmed, they will come back home and wreak their carnage there.

The final stage is reconstruction – which will again require the material assistance of the international community – and elections.

How is all this possible? And if it were, why haven’t we seen these measures being implemented earlier? I do not believe the political will existed until recently. I think Washington’s threat to launch military strikes against Syria was a “last stand,” and it failed because the west knows it cannot fight any more wars in the Mideast or predict outcomes. It also knows that Syria’s rebels have become everyone’s worst nightmare. The US knows it is going to need regional help to unwind this conflict – and that its traditional allies are unable to deliver, hence the “unprecedented” negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva. Geopolitical realities have fundamentally shifted. Yesterday’s enmities do not compare to the horrors ahead for the international community if the jihadi genie is not put back into its bottle.

These new alliances will not only work to resolve the Syrian conflict and re-stabilize the state, but will also serve to push “stability” throughout the region.

December 11, 2013 Posted by | Deception | , , , , , | Comments Off on Sharmine Narwani: Syrian Opposition is not United and Cohesive

Iraq: No Agreement with US on Imposing Sanctions against Iran

Fars News Agency | February 28, 2013

TEHRAN – The Iraqi foreign ministry in a statement underlined the importance of bilateral relations with Iran for the country, and announced that Baghdad will not impose the US-sponsored sanctions against Tehran.

Iraq opposed Washington’s request to comply with the US-led sanctions imposed against Iran over its nuclear energy program.

“Our relations with Iran are more important than all other issues or benefits,” the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.

Referring to the meetings held between the Iraqi government and US Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen, the statement said that the two sides had not reached any agreements on enforcing sanctions against Iran.

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry added that Baghdad has requested an exemption from the US-led sanctions imposed against Iran.

“Our economic relations with Iran will continue and are not in conflict with international resolutions,” an Iraqi official said. … Full article

February 28, 2013 Posted by | Economics | , , , | Comments Off on Iraq: No Agreement with US on Imposing Sanctions against Iran

Iran-Iraq-Syria Gas Pipeline Project Agreement Finalized

Fars News Agency | February 20, 2013

TEHRAN – Implementation of the Friendship Gas Pipeline project which is due to take Iran’s rich gas reserves to Iraq and Syria was agreed by the Iraqi government, an Iraqi cabinet statement announced.

A Tuesday Iraqi cabinet statement said that Iraq’s Minister for Petroleum Abdel Kareem Luaibi had been authorized to sign the “framework of the agreement” on setting up the strategic pipeline that would also prepare the ground for exporting Iranian gas to Europe through Syria in the future.

The statement added that Luaibi had recently held talks with his Iranian counterpart Rostam Qassemi and Managing Director of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) Ahmad Qalebani in Tehran regarding the issue.

Late in January, Iranian Oil Ministry Spokesman Alireza Nikzad Rahbar said the country will start exporting natural gas to Baghdad by next summer via an under-construction pipeline between the two countries.

He said that the “friendship” pipeline project between Iran, Iraq and Syria is the most important project currently pursued by the ministry.

The official said if the project is carried out according to schedule, the gas pipeline between Iran and Iraq will be completed next summer, adding that tripartite talks are underway to extend the pipeline to Syria.

He noted that the pipeline would be designed in such a way that it would be able to deliver gas to other Muslim countries like Jordan and Lebanon in the future.

The oil ministers of Iraq, Iran and Syria had signed a preliminary agreement for a $10 billion natural-gas-pipeline deal on July 25, 2011, in Assalouyeh industrial region located in the Southern province of Bushehr.

Iranian oil officials then said Syria would purchase between 20 million to 25 million cubic meters a day of Iranian gas while Iraq had also already signed a deal with Tehran to purchase up to 25 million cubic meters a day to feed its power stations.

The main project, 1,500 km length of piping Assalouyeh gas to Damascus requires $10 billion investment.

The pipeline will transfer a capacity of 110 million cubic meters of natural gas a day to Damascus.

The gas will be produced from the Iranian South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf, which Iran shares with Qatar, and holds estimated reserves of 16 trillion cubic meters of recoverable gas.

Iranian officials have said that Tehran also aims to extend the pipeline to Lebanon and the Mediterranean to supply gas to Europe.

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Economics | , , , , , | Comments Off on Iran-Iraq-Syria Gas Pipeline Project Agreement Finalized

Iran, Iraq, Syria sign agreement to boost transit cooperation

Press TV – January 13, 2013

Iran, Iraq, and Syria have signed a memorandum of understanding to expand their trade cooperation and boost the transit of goods through their borders.

Deputy Iranian Roads and Urban Development Minister Shahriyar Afandizadeh told the Fars News Agency on Saturday that the tripartite agreement on transportation and the transit of goods was signed in Tehran last week.

He added that senior Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian trade officials agreed to facilitate the transport of goods by rail and road.

Afandizadeh noted that a rail line connects Bandar Imam Khomeini on the Persian Gulf in Iran’s southwestern province of Khuzestan and the town of Shalamcheh on the border with Iraq.

He said plans have been drawn up for the establishment of a railway connection between Shalamcheh and the Iraqi port city of Basra. Once the project is completed, the railway link will stretch to the Syrian port city of Latakia and subsequently to North Africa, the Iranian official stated.

Afandizadeh added that the Iran-Iraq-Syria railroad connection will accelerate the transit of goods from the northern coast of the Persian Gulf to African and European countries and make the process more economical.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran attaches paramount importance to the transit of goods and is seeking to expand its transit ties with neighboring states,” Iran’s deputy roads and urban development minister said.

He also noted that Iran is making efforts to boost the transit of goods from the port city of Chabahar in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan to former Soviet republics.

Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Oman, and Qatar also plan to sign an agreement to enhance transit cooperation in the near future, Afandizadeh said in conclusion.

January 13, 2013 Posted by | Economics, Timeless or most popular | , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Iran, Iraq, Syria sign agreement to boost transit cooperation

Turkey Continues Grounding Syria Bound Flights

Fars News Agency | October 15, 2012

TEHRAN – Turkey grounded a Syria bound Armenian passenger flight to inspect its cargo after a similar move last Wednesday angered Damascus officials who retaliated against the forced landing of the Moscow-Syria flight in Ankara by closing their airspace to all Turkish airliners.

Turkish authorities are searching the Armenian aircraft traveling from Armenia to Syria after it landed in the Eastern city of Erzurum.

Ankara had reportedly demanded, in advance, the on-the-ground cargo inspection in Erzurum as a condition of flying through Turkish airspace.

“There was nothing extraordinary about it. Turkish security forces are currently searching the cargo,” Air Armenia head Arsen Avetisyan told Interfax news agency.

The cargo plane is carrying humanitarian aid to Aleppo.

This incident comes days after the Turkish military forced a Syrian plane traveling from Moscow to Damascus to land in Turkey. Ankara claimed that the civilian aircraft was transporting weapons to Syria. Authorities seized equipment they found in the plane’s luggage before allowing it to resume its flight.

The equipment was spare parts for radar, not weapons, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. The components were legally purchased in Russia, and were being delivered to the buyer in Syria.

Turkey and Syria denied each other the use of their respective airspaces after the incident.

October 15, 2012 Posted by | Aletho News | , , | Comments Off on Turkey Continues Grounding Syria Bound Flights

Minister: Tehran Determined to Complete Iran-Turkmenistan Railway

Fars News Agency | September 10, 2012

TEHRAN – Iranian Minister of Road and Urbanization Ali Nikzad said Ashgabat’s recent decision to annul a contract with an Iranian company over the construction of a key railway linking Iran to the Central Asia does not mean an end to the project and Tehran will accomplish construction of the railway which is a vital North-South corridor.

“The termination of Turkmenistan’s contract with an Iranian company will not affect the two country’s joint railway construction project,” Nikzad told FNA on Monday.

“This railway line will be inaugurated in due time,” the Iranian minister reiterated.

Meantime, he said Turkmenistan might have annulled the contract with the Iranian company in a bid to strike a better deal with the same or a different contractor.

Yet, the Iranian minister underscored that Iran will accomplish its undertakings with regard to this project.

Earlier media reports said that Turkmenistan has annulled a $700 million contract for an Iranian company to build a key section of the key railway line.

The decision was made at a cabinet meeting chaired by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammadov.

During the cabinet meeting, the Turkmen president said Turkmenistan will build this section independently.

Yesterday, Iran started laying the rail line of a key transit and transportation project linking Iran’s Northern city of Gorgan to IncheBoron in Turkmenistan.

Speaking to FNA, Iranian Deputy Minister of Road and Urbanization Seyed Ahmad Sadeqi said that the last phase of the construction of the railway officially started in a ceremony with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in attendance.

He said that construction of the infrastructures of the 80km long railway has already been finished.

The railway will link Iran to Turkmenistan and then to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and will connect the CIS countries with the Indian Ocean and high seas and the Persian Gulf littoral states.

The primary agreement on the construction of the rail link among Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan was signed between presidents of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan in April 2007 in the city of Turkmenbashi and its final agreement was signed in a summit meeting in Tehran in September of the same year by the three presidents.

The total route of the railway is 1000 kilometers, of which 90 kilometers would be in Iran, 700 kilometers in Turkmenistan and 210 kilometers in Kazakhstan.

The railway facilitates transportation of goods from the Central Asian countries to the Persian Gulf.

September 14, 2012 Posted by | Economics | , , , , | Comments Off on Minister: Tehran Determined to Complete Iran-Turkmenistan Railway