Arab world should respond to Iran’s Central Asia outreach
The countries in Central Asia seem to have transformed from being Iran-weary to Iran-friendly. Tehran’s relative success can be attributed to its shrewd diplomacy, its rivals’ apathy and regional geopolitical factors.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, Iran faced a quagmire in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Approximately 110 million Muslims, predominantly Sunni, were no longer under the clutches of the Kremlin. The ethnically diverse peoples posed many challenges for Tehran, while also offering opportunities. The leaders of the newly independent countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus were concerned about Iran’s ambitious sectarian interventions in neighboring countries.
Iran’s use of the Persian language, besides other cultural and commercial tools, proved successful, increasing the projection of its soft power in Central Asia. Tehran’s mercenaries did not embark on converting the region’s peoples to Shiism for fear of annoying Russia. Not only did they depend on Russia, but they were also aware of Moscow’s intolerance toward any form of radicalism, whether Sunni or Shiite. They also feared anti-Iranian actors from the Middle East entering the region on the pretext of protecting Sunni Islam from revolutionary Shiite Iran. Even Uzbekistan’s tiny Shiite minority of Iranian descent was left alone. On the other hand, despite its predominantly Shiite population, Azerbaijan, which is located in the South Caucasus region, was gently approached in the garb of religious tourism. Baku’s secular leadership always remained watchful of Tehran’s aspirations.
Despite its common Persian history and culture with Iran, Tajikistan has long viewed Tehran as a player on both sides of its civil war. Iran was even alleged to have instigated a failed coup in 2015. Suspicions about Iran’s ambitions are etched in the Tajik establishment’s mindset. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan and Iran have a dispute over Turkmen natural gas exports.
To bypass its differences with nearly all Central Asian countries, Iran chose to appease Russia and China, two global powerhouses and regional juggernauts. Not only did this spare the countries from Iran’s project of sectarian expansion and domestic interference, but it also allowed Tehran to join every regional forum, such as the Economic Cooperation Organization and Shanghai Cooperation Organization. These forums provided Iran with vast opportunities to interact with the Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan simultaneously.
Since America’s exit from Afghanistan in August, Iran’s interactions with the countries of Central Asia have become much more beneficial. While Pakistan is a vocal backer of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, its other neighbors, including Iran, have suspicions. The overlapping interests in Afghanistan amid the threat of a resurgence of violent extremism provide Tehran with a unique opportunity to not only pressurize Kabul, but also to sound politically correct to the rest of the world.
Uzbekistan is keen on a rail link with Afghanistan, which will eventually connect it to the Arabian Sea through Iran via its Chabahar Port, which is operated by India. While Iran’s port is hardly beneficial for Afghanistan as of now, the Uzbek railway link project is also in its infancy. Nonetheless, Iran will continue to portray itself as the shortest route for the influential and relatively populous Uzbekistan to reach the Arabian Sea.
Azerbaijan has become more worrisome for Iran since the liberation of its territories, including large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, from Armenia last year. Tehran is faced with the threat of ethno-nationalistic separatist tendencies among its own Azeri Turkic population.
On the sidelines of the 15th ECO summit last month, Iran signed a gas swap deal with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. Ashgabat will export 1.5 to 2 billion cubic meters of gas to Iran annually for re-export to Baku through the Iran Transmission Line Network. Despite Iran’s fraught gas relations with Turkmenistan since December 2016, it is trying to portray itself as the region’s energy hub. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, both Caspian Sea rim states, do not need a third country for energy connectivity. Iranian-Azeri relations are beset with serious irritants that need resolving before the two can accept energy dependency. For instance, during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Tehran continued to supply Yerevan with petroleum.
To bypass its differences with nearly all Central Asian countries, Tehran chose to appease Russia and China.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
After America’s exit from Afghanistan, Iran finds its policies and interests converging with the militarily assertive Russia and economically emphatic China in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Moscow and Beijing may not agree with Tehran’s premises, but pragmatism prevails in their rapprochement. However, Tehran’s interests do not converge with Islamabad’s on Kabul, or with Ankara’s on Baku and Yerevan. Neither Turkey nor Pakistan will compromise on Azerbaijan and Afghanistan, as these countries are vital for stability in Central Asia and the Caucasus, respectively.
To conclude, Iran’s policies toward Central Asia can be largely deemed successful, but they fall short of delivering it the grand economic, political and strategic anchor it desperately seeks. It is about time that the Arab states sought deeper linkages with the Central Asian and Caucasus nations bilaterally, as well as through a series of multilateral forums.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami