Iran looks to crowded Central Asian market

Iran looks to crowded Central Asian market

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Hassan Rouhani at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Dushanbe, Tajikistan, June 15, 2019. (Reuters)

In its foreign policy, Iran focuses on several dimensions, including ideology and race. Depending on the location and ever-fluctuating events at any given moment, one dimension will be given precedence over the others, according to the type of policy required to deal with a certain party. These policies are tailored according to the party and situation in question, with each requiring a different dimension.

In dealing with its Arab neighbors, Iran’s regime focuses primarily on sectarian Shiite dimensions. In Central Asian nations, meanwhile, it gives precedence to racial and cultural aspects, although all these countries have ideological and sectarian differences with Iran.

The leadership in Tehran knows, with regards to foreign policy, playing on historical, cultural and linguistic commonalities is more useful than openly using sectarian narratives and promoting the ideology of Wilayat Al-Faqih. While it does not ignore the latter completely, it relegates ideological proselytizing to a lower level of priority.

In recent years, more Central Asian countries have become aware of Iran’s foreign policy tools and worked to curb them to differing degrees. For example, Radio Tajikistan announced nearly two years ago that the country’s authorities had banned the dissemination of Ruhollah Khomeini’s ideology and literature, as well as the literature of other prominent regime clerics. In addition, Tajikistan’s authorities closed an Iranian cultural and commercial center in the north of the country. This came after the center in the city of Khujand used its influence to support sympathetic local authors and publish their writings. It also organized trips for young Tajik citizens to Iran in order to woo them and recruit them to serve the Iranian regime’s interests in Tajikistan.

The Tehran regime has used similar strategies to exploit its relations with Azerbaijan in order to foster support there, despite the two countries’ quite different political leaderships. It has also nurtured and supported radical groups inside Azerbaijan, despite its backing for Armenia in its dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

From a pragmatic viewpoint, it is known that Iran considers these countries as being handy economic markets for its products, given their geographic proximity. The level of Iran’s exports to these countries is far greater than its imports from them.

Considering the US and international sanctions imposed on Iran, the regime believes that the Central Asian countries — including Turkey and Iraq — are an essential route for circumventing the restrictions and reducing their effectiveness. For this reason, Iran has increased its focus on these countries over the past two years, working to increase its commercial exchanges with them.

From another perspective, however, the governments and citizens of these countries strongly wish to strengthen their ties with the Gulf states in general and Saudi Arabia in particular at all levels. They have far greater confidence in the Kingdom than in the Iranian regime for several reasons, but primarily their negative experiences with Tehran.

The advantage held by Iran is the fact that these nations — particularly the smaller ones — need to pass through Iranian territory to reach seaports, with the lack of real alternatives forcing them to submit to the regime’s blackmail and its carrot and stick policy.

Amin Zadeh, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Central Asia and Indian Ocean affairs, summed up this shift in Iran’s geoeconomic position, saying: “Iran today is not the land which gives precedence to the West over the Soviet Union. The danger posed by a major power to the north of the country, which always sought to enhance its strength via reaching out to the warm waters, has disappeared. Furthermore, it turned out to be an advantage. Five of our neighbors cannot reach the warm waters without passing through our territories.”

Iran considers these countries as being handy economic markets for its products, given their geographic proximity.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

It is known that Central Asian countries are considered a vital and vast arena for global contests between East and West, with Iran considered a modest and insignificant actor among the powers active in this region. The mindset of the Iranian regime, however, adopts the strategies used in the bazaar: Seizing opportunities and working to take advantage of each in a market crowded with traders without openly grappling with them in the marketplace or bringing attention to its presence. This metaphor applies to its entire dealing with Central Asia, considering the presence of China, Russia, the US and other countries.

I will conclude by posing these questions, leaving the answers to the honorable readers: To what extent would weakening Iran’s presence in Central Asia affect the regime’s behavior in the Middle East? And how far will imposing and tightening sanctions on the regime help Iran to behave like a normal state in its regional surroundings?

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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