Iran has expressed interest in joining forces with a Chinese company that plans to build a $50 billion canal across Nicaragua that links the Atlantic and Pacific and rivals the Panama Canal.Mohammed Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, said that business leaders who went with him to the Central American state this week had discussed teaming up with HKND, a private Hong Kong company that has broken ground on the project but made little progress in the past two years.
Iranian involvement in a Chinese-run strategic waterway may raise concerns in the United States, which was instrumental in building the Panama Canal a century ago.
Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s left-wing president, shares Iran’s antipathy towards the US and is favoured for re-election in polls this November.
The project to build the 172-mile waterway has caused controversy at home, where environmentalists say that the route would take supertankers across Lake Nicaragua, bulldoze fragile ecosystems and involve the biggest earth-moving operation in history.
With an estimated 30,000 people likely to be displaced by construction, there have been protests against the canal, although the government insists that more than 80 per cent of the population of the country backs it. Amnesty International has denounced what it called Nicaragua’s “reckless handling” of the project.
There have been doubts about the financial health of Wang Jing, the Hong Kong tycoon behind the canal, and whether he might be backed by the Chinese government, which has massively invested across Latin America and Africa in the past decade.
Mr Wang is understood to have lost more than 80 per cent of his $10 billion fortune as a result of the volatility in the Chinese stock market. The project managers say that it is an international initiative not dependent on the vagaries of the Chinese share prices. After the groundbreaking ceremony in December 2014, the project appeared to have been put on hold, prompting speculation that it had run out of steam.
However, Mr Wang’s HKND group said this year that work on the Pacific terminal and wharf would begin this month, with work on the canal scheduled to start at the end of the year.
Mr Zarif, whose country recently had years of crippling US sanctions lifted, is on a tour of Latin America that began on Monday in Cuba, which has renewed diplomatic ties with the US but has yet to have its own half-century of sanctions lifted.Nicaragua was Mr Zarif’s second stop with an entourage of 120 Iranian business leaders and state economists, and he was scheduled to head on to Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Chile.