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    Middle East
     Aug 15, 2007
Iran plays the Central Asia card
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

This week, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad kicks off a tour of neighboring states in South and Central Asia with a trip that begins in Kabul and ends in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in time to attend the next summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

With the security deterioration in Afghanistan, openly admitted to by that country's President Hamid Karzai on his recent trip to Washington, and rising Islamic militancy in the region and in China's western autonomous region of Xinjiang, the Islamic 

Republic of Iran is a key regional player that can be counted on by the SCO member states, irrespective of China's recent misgivings about Iran's inclusion as a full member.

In Afghanistan, Ahmadinejad will reiterate Iran's good-neighborly policy, perhaps much to the chagrin of US President George W Bush, who openly disagreed with Karzai's pro-Iran comments at their recent joint press conference. With their porous 936-kilometer border, Iran and Afghanistan are grappling with a growing menace of drug traffic that exacts the lives of hundreds of Iranian law-enforcement agents annually, in addition to the deadly resurgence of the Taliban who, having regrouped in Pakistan, have stepped up their attacks on the Afghan government and US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces stationed in the war-ravaged country.

In Turkmenistan, the country's new leader, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, is playing a balancing act between Iran and Russia, in contrast to his predecessor, Sapamurat Niyazov, who was closely aligned with Iran and signed a (hitherto undisclosed) military pact. Considered a welcome departure from Niyazov's cultic brand of politics, Berdimuhamedov is keen on not antagonizing Moscow, tantalizing it with offers of marketing his country's abundant gas resources through a pipeline to Russia. Already, Turkmenistan has entered an agreement with Iran for the transit of its gas to Turkey and Europe.

Iran and Turkmenistan have similar perspectives on the hitherto inconclusive marathon discussions on the division of the Caspian Sea. Iran is weary of any undue shift in Turkmenistan's foreign policy in Russia's favor at a delicate time when Iran-Russia relations have hit a new low as a result of the nuclear row and Russia's appeasement of Washington's demand to link the fate of the Russian-made power plant in Bushehr to the nuclear crisis. With President Vladimir Putin beginning to flex Russian military muscle on Georgia, and through a joint military exercise with China, Iran's concerns about a new Russian militarism are unmistakable.

In Uzbekistan, home to a US military base, Iran seeks to enhance economic cooperation in part by improving the transportation corridor between the two countries. According to Iran's ambassador to Uzbekistan, trade between Iran and Uzbekistan in the first nine months of 2006 reached US$450 million. About 70 joint ventures and representative offices of big Iranian companies are operating in the various sectors of the Uzbek economy. Iran is soliciting Tashkent's support on Iran's nuclear program, and that is only one of several reasons Tehran, always considering Uzbekistan a regional middleweight, is keen on cultivating relations.

In the "near neighbor" Tajikistan, considered close to Iran's heart because of various cultural and historical connections, Tehran's aim is to build on the progress made as a result of the January visit by the Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov, which paved the way for an expansion of bilateral ties, eg agreements providing for Iranian assistance for several Tajik infrastructure projects, including construction of the Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric power station and the Shahristan Tunnel.

In light of the continuing tensions between and among the Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan over scarce water and arable land, Iran is a suitable mediator with a rather shining record, seeing how it successfully brokered peace among the Tajik warring factions during the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, to this date, Iran's conflict-management role, both in Tajikistan and in the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, have remained largely unnoticed in the Western media's coverage of Iran.

In Kazakhstan, Iran seeks to boost its oil and trade relations and to do so partly by arranging sub-national, ie, region-to-region relations through its Caspian provinces. Kazakhstan has an oil-swap agreement with Iran, whereby every year some 1.2 million barrels of oil are exported from Aktau, Kazakhstan, to Iran, which then transports this oil to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf region. Iran's oil companies are active in Kazakh oil activities in the Caspian Sea and, barring unforeseen developments, the two countries can expand their trade even beyond the $2 billion reported for 2006.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has expressed support for Iran's peaceful nuclear program and may even push aggressively for Iran's inclusion in the SCO, given Kazakhstan's close yet not too close relations with both China and Russia. Kazakhstan is averse toward SCO's evolution as a Warsaw Treaty-like organization, which is why it has "sent a signal to Washington" by not allowing the Chinese soldiers participating in the joint exercise to travel to Russia through its territory.

In Kyrgyzstan, after a recent trip by Iran's finance minister promising the allocation of Iran's 50 million euros ($66.67 million) credit for joint development and industrial projects in Bishkek, Iran is looking to expand ties in all domains, as part and parcel of it broader Central Asian policy that includes the ambitious plans for a "new Silk Road" connecting Iran and China through the region.

All five Central Asian states and Afghanistan are members of the regional Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), which has been a forum for discussion among these states for trade and transportation linkages among them. By more organically connecting Afghanistan to Central Asia within the scope of its regionalist approach, Iran hopes to see a certain geopolitical dividend emerge that may, in fact, influence the SCO's approach toward it.

A timely boost to the hitherto neglected aspect of Ahmadinejad's foreign policy, which has been understandably more preoccupied with the volatile Persian Gulf and Iraq, his tour of the region will not only reinforce Iran's image as a pillar of cooperation and stability, it will also indirectly help Iran's Persian Gulf strategy, which has met the resistance of Saudi Arabia (boycotting last week's security meeting on Iraq held in Damascus).

After all, Iran can also play transit route for the Arab states of Persian Gulf seeking trade and investment in the landlocked Central Asian states. That aside, geostrategically speaking, Iran eases pressure on itself by getting more breathing space in this newly independent region still grappling with the problems of state-making.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

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