Iran has tried in recent years to impose itself on the Central Asian scene economically and culturally. This paper addresses three key questions: 1. To what extent will Iran’s increased role modify the geopolitical situation in the region? 2. Can Tehran hope to exert more influence on the region in terms of economic trade? 3. Is Iran at risk of politico-religious influence on Central Asia and Afghanistan, as has been regularly claimed by political leaders from the region as well as a number of local and western analysts? It concludes with the contention that any increased Iranian influence on the region will come gradually and will be impacted by the progress of rapprochement efforts with the United States.
The recent rapprochement between the United States and Iran raises many questions about the increased role that the latter could play in Afghanistan and in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). Hitherto Iran has been the essential “missing link” in the regional integration of the region and the sanctions placed on it by the international community have largely hampered the development of political and economic relations with its neighbours, as well as its possible involvement in rebuilding and stabilizing Afghanistan.
Iran has nevertheless spared no effort in trying to impose itself on the regional scene. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a biased reading of Central Asia “rediscovering” its cultural-Islamic and partly linguistic identity with Iran (and Turkey) dominated frames of reference both in the West and among the actors themselves. However, the prospect for Central Asia’s rapid integration into the Muslim world soon abated. Although Iran has managed to build long-term influence and pragmatic partnerships with their neighbors, its relations with Central Asia seemed to fade with the fear expressed by Central Asian countries of seeing Tehran boost the development of “political Islam” on their territories, with the onset of Russian-American tensions in the Caspian Basin, with the reassertion of Russian great power, not to mention with Beijing’s arrival on the Central Asian radar, and lastly and above all, American pressures to dissuade all large-scale projects involving cooperation with Tehran. In Afghanistan, Iran has tried to gain in influence, but is once again impeded by geopolitical calculations and in particular by pressures from Washington.
The observable rapprochement between Tehran and Washington should not be overestimated and, even if it is successful, will probably be a relatively long process. There are several obstacles to overcome (among others, the opposition or reluctance of some American and Iranian political circles, or states such as Israel, Turkey, Russia, China etc.). However, progress in this direction raises three questions: 1. To what extent will Iran’s increased role modify the geopolitical situation in the region? 2. Can Tehran hope to exert more influence on the region in terms of economic trade? 3. Is Iran at risk of politico-religious influence on Central Asia and Afghanistan, as has been regularly claimed by political leaders from the region as well as a number of local and western analysts?
Towards a regional geopolitical redefinition?
To this day, Iran has never managed to fully claim its role and its geopolitical presence in the region, both for internal and external reasons. For the Islamic Republic of Iran the disappearance of the Soviet Union, as the main counterweight to American influence, drastically modified its geopolitical environment toward regional neighbours. During Soviet times, Iran was thought as a buffer state between the USSR on one side and pro-Western Turkey and Pakistan on the other side; however, the geopolitical scene was turned upside down in the 1990s, with Ankara and Islamabad then presenting themselves as ramparts against the spread of Iranian revolutionary ideas in Central Asia and the Caucasus. (1)
Moreover, despite many long centuries of proximity, Iranian leaders had no specific ideas about what they might hope to achieve in independent Central Asia, and they did not consider it to be a priority area. Iran’s primary concerns were domestic: After emerging from a decade of war with Iraq, the economic and social situation was tense. It was not until 2001 that the Iranian minister of foreign affairs, Kamal Kharrazi, declared the region is an Iranian foreign policy priority. (2)
For their part, the Central Asian states were trying, through partnership with Tehran, to escape Russian influence, to diversify economically, and to gain access to open seas in the south. But they were also quite wary about forging a relationship with the Islamic regime and feared that Tehran would seek to export Islamic revolution. At the time, local governments also faced rising pressure from Washington, which sought to prevent the transformation of Iran into a regional power.
At the end of the 1990s, Iran tried to strengthen its position in international structures, such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), but relations with Israel quickly constituted a point of contention with the Central Asian governments. Pressures from Iran, which then sought to adopt resolutions against Israel during its 1997-2000 presidency of the OIC, led the Central Asian states to keep their distance from the organization to preserve their good relations with Tel Aviv. Iran also sought a leading role in the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), the only major regional organization to which it belongs. (3) Again, the Central Asian states rejected Tehran’s attempts at politicization of the organization, which would have put them at odds with the United States. The organization has certainly failed to take off and today plays only a marginal role in the development of exchanges between Iran and Central Asia. (4)
Today, Tehran’s place in regional geopolitical reconfigurations is not settled, although it has not spared any efforts in recent years in trying to join new organizations. In 2003, and then again in 2008, Tehran strongly supported prospects for an Asian Union, inviting Russia, India, China and other states of Asia to join. The aim was to gather together the main world resources in oil and gas, but also in people, and to constitute a counterweight to the United States. (5) It obtained SCO observer status in 2005. Tehran also attempted to foster a new Persian-speaking regional configuration, and Mahmud Ahmadinejad promoted the Conference of Persian Countries that brought together the presidents of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan in April 2010. (6)
Warmer Iran-American relations would enable Tehran to strengthen its role in regional organizations. This scenario would be a way for the United States to limit China’s growing role in Afghanistan and in Central Asia. Iran would indeed have less need to rely on China in order to impose itself, while the new context could inflame tensions between both countries. The influence of ECO or of the OIC remains weak in Central Asia and to this day no other regional organization has proved itself in terms of economic development and the maintenance of regional security. On the other hand, some regional actors (China, Turkey) could turn out to be reluctant to let this country gain in influence and impose itself as a sizeable economic and political rival on the regional scene. Lastly, the republics of Central Asia will most likely continue to entertain friendly relations with Tel-Aviv, and any anti-Israeli politics pursued by Iran will cause an outcry from Central Asian governments.
With the 2014 NATO drawdown from Afghanistan, the international community increasingly looks towards the impact that a stable or unstable Afghanistan might have on the broader region, including Central Asia. Emphasis is often placed on the threat of radical Islamism and Afghan extremists that could destabilize Central Asia. The possibility of a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran could impact Iranian configurations towards Afghanistan, Iran being a key player for Afghanistan’s future. Domestic evolutions in Afghanistan have a direct bearing on Iran. Unlike Pakistan, Iran’s interests in Afghanistan are similar to those of the international community: it will gain nothing by seeing a Taliban regime in power in Kabul. Iran could be more involved in the country’s rebuilding, something that the states of Central Asia, and other of Afghanistan’s neighbours such as India, would very much hope to see. The United States could even look at Iran as a possible way to Afghanistan, rather than the very risky route through Pakistan, or the very costly northern path via Central Asia. The completion of the gas pipeline between Iran and Pakistan would give Iran greater influence over Pakistan and therefore reduce the latter’s negative influence on Afghanistan.
The relations between Iran and Afghanistan, which are often very intense, could improve. Afghanistan has accused the Iranians on many occasions of interfering in its domestic (political, economic, and cultural) affairs. Both countries have had recurrent disagreements over the distribution of water, and Afghanistan claims to be hindered by Iran in realizing its construction projects for hydroelectric dams. Iran instrumentalised the issue of having Afghan refugees on its territory (about 1 million persons) to discourage all cooperation with the United States, claiming it would be prepared to expel large numbers of refugees if Kabul refused to comply. Afghanistan remains open to cooperation with Iran for the purposes of development and stabilization, a cooperation that could be further developed within this new context.
Potential and limits of reorientation of economic exchanges
Thus far geography has not won out in its combat against geopolitics, and the international community’s ostracisation of Tehran has cost the Central Asian economies dearly, as it has prevented them from taking full advantage of Iranian proximity. The question arises whether or not the end of the nuclear dispute could give rise to the development of economic, regional and bilateral exchanges. If Iran can hope to play a greater economic role in the region, its presence will remain secondary since the context has considerably altered in Central Asian since the 1990s. (7) Despite its geographical contiguity with Central Asia via Turkmenistan, economic exchanges are still limited and sometimes in decline. At the end of the 2000s, Tehran represented less than three per cent of the whole of Central Asian foreign trade. The Iranian products that entered Central Asian markets at the beginning of the 1990s were unable to stave off Chinese competition and were destined to disappear. However, in the opposite case, if Iran were really reintegrated into the international scene the partnership with Central Asia would likely increase in scope: new sectors of cooperation are developing in which Iranian expertise would be appreciated: hydroelectricity, minerals, the industrial treatment of agriculture and textiles, and automobile production. Iran’s geographical position gives it real value in the eyes of the Central Asian states, which are always interested in finding ways to expand and to gain access to the southern seas, and to the Mediterranean Basin. Projects to connect Central Asian road and railway networks to Iran’s, as well as to Turkey’s and Afghanistan’s are numerous, but they have been quite unrealistic given the current geopolitical context, and the flows that circulate on the completed sections are very modest. Nevertheless, Iran’s strategic role as a transit zone from the Eurasian continent, on both the east-west and north-south axes, plays in its favour in the long-term.
Were there to be confirmation of the warming of relations between the United States and Iran, a development of trade relations between Iran and Europe could be predicted, in particular in the sector of hydrocarbons. Such a development could have consequences on the oil countries of the region, since it would weigh further, in terms of competition, on Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. It is highly unlikely that the latter has any concerns about finding client countries for its exportations, as China remains a main buyer. This would nonetheless put Astana in a situation of greater independence with respect to the Chinese neighbour, at a time when the influence of Beijing is increasingly contested within the country. (8) If Iranian oil is better inserted into global distribution circuits, this may lead to world prices of black gold falling and thus, for Kazakhstan, to a reduction of dividends from the oil manna on which the Kazakh authorities count in terms of economic and social development, as well as stability. This scenario is however scarcely in the short term since it requires the organization of transport infrastructures, and, as a result, considerable investments and notable extension periods.
Beyond the regional political game, there are equally some bilateral relations that might come to be reconsidered. Kazakhstan dominates the exchanges, followed closely by Turkmenistan. Iran ranks as Turkmenistan’s sixth-largest trade partner and Tajikistan’s seventh-largest, but it is much less important for the other countries. Here again the figures should cause no illusion: with the exception of Turkmen and Tajik exports, Iran represents only between 0.3 and 6.7 per cent of the region’s imports or exports. (9)
Iran considered Turkmenistan, with which it shares a 900-kilometer long border, as its main ally in Central Asia. Their relations quickly turned their focus onto trade exchanges. Iran would probably be less disposed to yielding to demands with its partner of the north, and with which negotiations are known to be difficult: Turkmenistan regularly changed its export tariffs on gas to Iran, pursued a policy of repression against the Shiite minority, and supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. (10) However, Iran will not be able to ignore Ashgabat, which is a gas partner and an essential entry door into Central Asia.
As for Kazakhstan, despite its will to develop relations with Iran, it had to demonstrate moderation in order not to offend its American partner. A new context would enable Kazakhstan to relaunch, or give greater vigour to, several projects, in particular in the sector of commodity transit and in oil swaps, which are numerous but were impeded by Iran’s marginalization. Moreover, Kazakhstan has become one of the major exporters of cereals to Iran and hopes to increase its presence via maritime transportation and the building of cereal terminals in Aktau and the Iranian ports. (11) However, such a redirection of trade exchanges is not without risk for the region. Kazakhstan, which today cuts the figure of Central Asia’s bread basket, is at the origin of more than 90 per cent of wheat imports from the Central Asian republics. Astana has not concealed that it is looking for more solvable clients than the poor republics of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This development thus raises questions over the problem of food security in the region, which today remains particularly fragile. Lastly, for Astana, a growing civil nuclear power, Iran would be a select partner. The former has not hidden its interest, in theory, in helping the Iranian nuclear power program through the sale of uranium fuel, and in 2009, it even offered to host on its territory a fuel bank that Iran could use for civilian purposes. (12)
Uzbekistan continues to be the country most reluctant to develop its relations with Iran, and this is for multiple reasons: the Uzbek regime is suspicious of any rival regional power, was founded on the fear of Islamic insurgency and, until 2005, promoted itself as the foremost ally of the United States in the region. (13) A potential change might therefore tend to convince Tashkent to further develop relations with Tehran, probably in a very moderate manner. Trade relations with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan bear low importance, even if the latter has long stood as a gateway for Iranian influence in Central Asia. (14)
Is there are risk of spreading Shiite political Islam in the region?
Beyond some geopolitical and economic consequences, this situation could give impetus to Iran’s insertion in the global trade flows, and above all to the risks of spreading political Islam, an issue of concern to the Central Asian authorities. Since the mid-1990s, fear of political Islam has helped to curb Iranian Central Asians emerging relations. The denunciation of a political Islamic threat that emanates from Arab countries (Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia or Iran’s Shiite revolutionary Islam) has become one of the themes of Central Asian states, which are adamant about retaining their secular character. Suspicions linked to Iran’s religious orientation are still numerous.
Many episodes have served to make the Iranian state suspicious in the eyes of the Central Asian governments. It is likely that Iran funded, at least initially, the Party of Islamic Revival of Tajikistan, and indirectly participated in the overthrow of the government of Rakhmon Nabiyev in 1992 which was followed by a civil war. (15) However, Tehran has always denied a direct role in the Tajik armed conflict, claiming to have perceived it as a civil war between regional clans, not a holy war on behalf of Islam. Iran has however pursued a flexible policy in Central Asia that has created for it a range of opportunities for expanding its influence in the future. The Islamic Republic’s intelligence services are purportedly active throughout the region, Iranian universities host Central Asian students every year, small Sunni religious groups receive funding from Tehran and new Shiite movements with connections to Iran have formed in Tajikistan. Under the supervision of embassies, Tehran funded the opening of several cultural centres, as well as chairs of Iranian studies at several universities in Central Asia.
Iran plays the card of religious solidarity with Shiites in Afghanistan more than in Central Asia. The rapprochement could ease Iran policy which so far has had contradictory interests in this country. First, the religious and civilian parts of the Iranian government have no interest in seeing the Pakistani and Saudi-backed Taliban return to power. Iran has privileged relations with the Hazara ethnic minority which dominates the Shiite scene in Afghanistan (16) and constitutes the third largest religious group in the country (less than 10 per cent of the population). However, the Revolutionary Guard have supported them as an anti-American agenda. In this new context, Iran could support the Shiites living in Afghanistan more; on the other hand, this could raise more tensions with Pashtuns. Iran will certainly keep its actors involved in Afghanistan and dispose of many possible allies in the country. The assistance offered by Tehran and particularly by its mosques’ charitable foundations—the reconstruction of places of worship, religious guidance, theology texts—often is a condition of unwavering support for the Khomeini ideology.
Even if Iran has failed to influence regional geopolitical orientations, Tehran perceives the region as a crossroad for a conflict with the Sunni fundamentalist currents from the Indian subcontinent and the Persian Gulf, which are multiplying in Central Asia. Tehran does not want to interfere with the traditional Sunnism of the Afghan and Central Asian peoples, but is concerned by the spreading of Salafi theories, which it regards as an ideological Arabisation harmful to the Middle Eastern balance. (17) This situation has led Iran to conduct a paradoxical strategy in Central Asia. Since the era between 2001-2003, the Iranian state has been, for instance, seeking to expand contacts with Central Asian secret services. It supports local Islamic groups that call on Central Asians to become good Muslims in their daily practice as well as in foreign policy by being more critical of the Western (American, Russian, European) presence, while at the same time seeking to halt Sunni radicalism, but these two trends are contradictory because the former groups are most often inspired by Salafism.
Greater relations with Iran could provoke further tensions and control over potential Iranian political activities on Central Asian territories. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan regularly accuse the Iranian secret services, or various religious groups, of wanting to destabilize the secular regimes. (18) Twelver Shiism, which is practiced by the Azeri minorities of Central Asia as well as by the Ironis in the Bukhara-Samarkand region, is subject to repression on a regular basis. Shiism is associated with national minorities, equated with Islamism, and therefore comes with a risk of terrorism or rebellion, and is seen as an agent of Iranian influence. (19)
Yet almost no Iranian group actively seeks to promote the conversion of Sunni Central Asians to Shia. Only Tajikistan is experiencing a small trend of conversion to Shiism, but it is limited specifically to some regions (Khatlon and Kulyab), where the influence of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan is significant. But it is the only country in Central Asia where pan-Iranian sentiments can be expressed, where Iran is seen by some as a model. (20) The religious and political influence of Iran in Central Asia has often been overestimated, and concerns related to the expansion of political Islam inspired by the Shiite Iranian model have largely been exaggerated. Tehran has not tried to play the card of religious one-upmanship in Central Asia as it has done in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, nor has it sought to mobilize the small minority of Shiites in the region.
The Iranian state presents itself as a pragmatic partner, willing to put aside the ideological differences it has with Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbours—for example on Israel or the secular nature of the regimes—in order to promote regional cooperation. It is likely that Iran will not miss any opportunity to impose itself further on the regional stage. It is nevertheless hardly probable that the situation will alter quickly. Tehran and the region’s states remain fully aware of the fragility of any such development. However, were this scenario to play out, the region and the international community would certainly have much to gain from greater Iranian involvement in the rebuilding of Afghanistan, in the regional integration (political and economic) of Central Asia and a better equilibrium between regional actors in the face of the weight of specific actors such as China and Russia, which is of course legitimate but dominant.
*Dr. Sebastien Peyrouse is a Research Professor at the Elliot School of International Affairs, Central Asia Program, IERES, George Washington University.
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(2) V. Mesamed, “Iran: Ten years in post-Soviet Central Asia,” Central Asia and the Caucasus 1 (2002): 28.
(3) K.V. Markov, “Iran i postsovetskie respubliki Tsentral’noi Azii: tochki pritiazheniia i ottalkivaniia” [Iran and the Post-Soviet Republics of Central Asia: Areas of Rapprochement and Distance] in Central Asia in the System of International Relations (Mocow: Institut Vostokovedeniaa: 2004), 279-300.
(4) M.R. Djalili, “L'Iran et la Turquie face à l'Asie centrale,” Journal for International & Strategic Studies 1 (2008), 13-19.
(5) N. Swanstrom, “An Asian Oil and Gas Union: Prospects and Problems,” The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly 3(3) (2005), 81-97.
(6) R. Muzalevsky, “The ‘Persian Alliance’ and Geopolitical Reconfiguration in Central Asia,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 7 161 (2010), http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews percent5Btt_news percent5D=36799.
(7) M. Laruelle, S. Peyrouse, Globalizing Central Asia. Geopolitics and the Challenges of Economic Development (Armonk, M.E. Sharpe, 2013).
(8) M. Laruelle, S. Peyrouse The ‘Chinese Question’ in Central Asia. Domestic Order, Social Changes and the Chinese Factor (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
(9) EU Bilateral Trade and Trade with the World, 2011, http://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/.
(10) V. Mesamed (2007) “Iran – Turkmenistan: prodolzhaetsia li aktivnyi dialog?” [Iran-Turkmenistan: is the active dialogue still continuing?], Iimes.ru, 19 August 2007, http://www.iimes.ru/rus/stat/2007/19-08-07c.htm.
(11) “Iran i Kazakhstan podumyvaiut postroit’ NPZ” [Iran and Kazakhstan discuss the possibility of building an oil refinery], Rosinvest.com, 2006 December 14, http://www.rosinvest.com/news/251441/.
(12) V. Ivanov, “Iadernyi skandal. Pod zanaves goda Kazakhstan obvinili v nezakonnoi sdelke po uranu s Iranom” [A nuclear scandal. Kazakhstan accused of illegal selling uranium to Iran], Delovaia Nedelia, 2009 December 31.
(13) Mesamed, “Iran: Ten years in post-Soviet Central Asia,”30.
(14) “Vizit prezidenta Rakhmonova v Iran mozhno nazvat’ istoricheskim” [President Rakhmon’s visit in Iran can be called historic], Analitika.org, 2006 February 12, http://www.analitika.org/article.php?story=20060212035915491.
(15) M. Mesbahi , “Tajikistan, Iran and the international politics of the ‘Islamic factor’,” Central Asian Survey vol. 16 (2) (1997), 141-158.
(16) S. A. Mousavi The Hazaras of Afghanistan. An Historical, Cultural, Economic and Political Study, (Richmond: Palgrave Macmillan,1997), 23-25.
(17) M. Luomi, “Sectarian Identities or Geopolitics? The Regional Shia-Sunni Divide in the Middle East,” FIIIA Working Paper, 56 (2008). and R. Shanahan, “Bad Moon Not Rising: The Myth of the Gulf Shia Crescent,” Lowy Institute Analysis Paper, 2008.
(18) “Tajikistan and Iran: Is Dushanbe Distancing Itself from Cultural Cousin?,” Eurasianet, 2011 March 7, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/63021.
(19) S. Peyrouse, “Shiism in Central Asia: The Religious, Political, and Geopolitical Factors,” Central Asia and Caucasus Analyst, 2009 May 20, 9-11.
(20) Author’s interviews with Tajik experts, Dushanbe, March 2008, June 2010.