US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on April 22, 2016 in New York.
As one of the historical symbols of Central Asia and its surrounding areas, “Silk Road” attracted the attention of the US policymakers for the first time in the second term of Bill Clinton’s administration as the “Silk Road Strategy Act of 1999” which was then pursuit by the George W. Bush administration as the “Silk Road Strategy Act of 2006” and Obama administration as the “New Silk Road Strategy” (NSRS) in 2011, albeit with some modifications.
New Silk Road Strategy (NSRS) is on Obama administration’s agenda with the purpose of liberalization of trade flow, acceleration of economic cooperation, increasing trade volume, and improvement of human relations between Central Asia and South Asia, centered by Afghanistan. Generally, the main goals of NSRS pursued by the US can be enumerated as follows:
1) Making the US soft power in the region more prominent is considered as the main objective. Silk Road is a very well-known historical name which implies meanings and messages such as trade, economic relations, social bonds, and cultural interactions.
2) NSRS, considered a supplement to “Greater Central Asia”, pursues the geopolitical coherence of Central Asia with South Asia, centered by Afghanistan. Operationalization of these plans suggests a shift in the US foreign policy outlook from the eastern-western orientation (Central Asia, and the Caspian Sea, and the Caucasus) to northern-southern orientation (Central Asia, Afghanistan, and South Asia).
3) In order to fulfil the above-mentioned goals, the U.S. State Department faced with some structural alterations. That is to say that the issues of Central Asia was detached from “Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs” and incorporated into “Bureau of South Asian Affairs”. Thus, a new office dubbed as “Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs” has been established within the State Department.
4) Refreshment of the Marshall Plan and strengthening the economic infrastructure of Afghanistan is one of the other objectives of the US in NSRS. Like “Greater Central Asia”, the focus of NSRS is on Afghanistan, a country that links two regions of Central and South Asia.
5) The main objective of Obama’s administration in the development and execution of “New Silk Road Strategy” is to create economic integration in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and South Asia. According to the US administration, more than 40 important projects on the infrastructure sector of this region including TAPI Pipeline, 1000 Electricity Transmission and Trade Project for Central Asia and South Asia (CASA) and Hairatan Rail Project have been implemented or are being implemented with political and financial support of the US, accounting for a very important part of NSRS.
6) The US objective of NSRS is to undermine the traditional role and place of three rival countries including Iran, Russia, and China.
Concerning the Iranian status to the U.S. Silk Road strategy, while Iran has been historically one of the main and traditional routes of the ancient Silk Road from China to Europe, it has no place in this plan for political and geopolitical considerations. In fact, implementation of “New Silk Road Strategy” and “Greater Central Asia” is the continuation of the traditional policy of excluding Iran from the transit route of goods and energy in the region. In this regard, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline (TAPI) plays the same role as the Trans-Caspian, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, and Nabucco in eliminating Iran and weakening its position in regional energy transmission. This is also true for other economic projects, particularly in the area of transit (construction of roads and railway).
Iranian nuclear dispute and imposition of widespread sanctions also intensified the process of eliminating Iran within the framework of “New Silk Road Strategy” and “Greater Central Asia”. For instance, at the end of the Fifth Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in March 2012, Robert Blake, U.S. Assistant Secretary at Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, expressly opposed to the projects of construction of railway from China to Herat, Afghanistan and then Iran- based on the theory of connecting China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Iran to each other in the framework of a regional project and said: “the United States is encouraging all of the countries of the region to avoid trade and other transactions with the government of Iran in order to pressure Iran to engage with the international community about its concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. We believe there are some very good alternatives. For example, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-India Pipeline is one very good alternative to some of the other pipelines that are being considered and this is a pipeline, the TAPI Pipeline is one that enjoys our very strong support, and I think it’s significant that this pipeline is attracting greater momentum and again greater support from the four countries involved.”
Although Frederick Starr, Head of Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and the first developer of “Silk Road Strategy”, did not believe in Blake view and argued that Central Asia and Afghanistan should be connected to southern ports like Karachi, Gwadar, Bandar Chabahar, and Bandar Abbas to exit the geopolitical deadlock and facilitate regional trade, the US policymakers, with the implementation of two plans of “New Silk Road Strategy” and “Greater Central Asia”, practically walked along the past path in order to exclude Iran, the Russian Federation, and the People’s Republic of China from the energy and goods transit routes and weaken the traditional position of these three countries in the process of economic and trade developments in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and South Asia.
While Iran and the great powers reached a comprehensive nuclear agreement last summer and the UN Security Council sanctions have been removed, no specific change has been noticed yet. Needless to say that, Iran is geographically the natural neighbor of Central Asia, Afghanistan, and South Asia and also has played an important role in the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the formation of a national government in this country in Bonn Conference. Security, stability, and economic development of these regions are inextricably linked to Iran’s security. In this regard, multilateral mechanisms and regional cooperation are among the most effective ways for improving the situation in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and South Asia. A two-decade experience clearly shows that zero-sum-game approach is not to the interests of regional states at all. Hence, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is an opportunity for Iran’s effective economic and commercial presence in the region. The recent agreement between Iran, Afghanistan, and India in relation to Chabahar Port is a good example of this presence. The continuation and expansion of such approach in other regions and arenas will definitely lead to financial infrastructure improvement, trade expansion and last but not least, security and sustainable development in the regions.
NOTE: This article first presented at Center for Strategic Studies, affiliated to Iranian President Office, on May 29, 2016.
Vali Kaleji, an expert at Iranian Center for Strategic Research, is the senior fellow at IRAS.