Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev (L) with his wife Raisa (R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (C) at a reception at the Moscow Kremlin on June 20, 2017
Central Asia's unique geopolitical features have grabbed the attention of peripheral foreign powers during its history. The significance of the region, in particular, is seen in the relationship between neighboring Iran and Russia. In the decades since the nineteenth century, Central Asia had turned to the Tsar/Soviet Russian territories due to Moscow’s absolute dominance in the region. However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and consequent geopolitical opening of the region, the presence of regional and global powers in Central Asia, once again, has once again increased. In the meantime, the footsteps of powers in the region precisely coincided with politically independent Central Asian states' security, economic and sociocultural bonds with Russia, on the one hand, and the dubbing of the Soviet satellites as 'Near Abroad', on the other hand, gave huge emphasis to the region for the sake of Russia's national interests and objectives.
Similarly, Central Asia as a neighboring region to Iran, has had enjoyed cultural, identity and (in some period of time) political and economic ties. The shared history of old linkage has set off new growing relationships between Iran and the newly independent states. Widespread economic interests of Central Asia and the significance of political/security developments of the region in neighboring countries were among the issues underscore the expansion of relationship between Iran and Central Asian states more than ever.
This analytical paper, focusing on Iran's policy in Central Asia, will try to elucidate the basic features of Iranian approach to the region, study the possibilities of Iran-Russia regional cooperation and finally, recognize the opportunities for and constraints on further bilateral collaboration in Central Asia.
Iran's Interests and Priorities in Central Asia
Two concepts of 'economy' and 'security' are at the core of any classification of Iran’s interests and objectives in Central Asia. In this regard, Iran's interests in each of the two realms are narrowed down to some particular topics.
Economic Interests and Priorities
Trade, energy transmission and transportation are the three most important and major areas of Iran’s interests in Central Asia which its objectives are defined accordingly.
Iran’s policy on expanding trade with Central Asia is developed to achieve three main objectives: access to raw materials for manufacturing industries, market expansion for Iranian (consumer) goods, and transit network development to both secure Iranian exports to other regions and put Iran at the heart of the network. While the local bazaars have been limited and challenging, developing marketplaces and free trade areas in northern border towns have paved the way for inextricable economic links between Iran and Central Asian states. Moreover, Iran’s setting up of the Cooperation Council of Caspian Sea States (CCCSS) and inclusion of former Soviet states in the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) are deemed Iranian efforts for an all-out development of regional cooperation.
From the very first day after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been said that Iran could provide the Central Asian states’ energy resources with the shortest transit route. Putting this idea into practice, Iran would grab the attention of the Central Asian energy suppliers and the European consumers. However, the most important driving force behind the lucrative project is the Central Asian inclination towards the diversification of energy transit routes and the European desire to diversify its energy resources.
Among Central Asian states, Iran’s most important gas link has been forged with Turkmenistan. The National Iranian Gas Company (NIGC) signed the Korpezhe–Kurt Kui gas pipeline contract with Turkman officials in October 1995 and the project came into operation in 1997 with transit capacity of 4bn cubic meters that after a while increased to 8bn cubic meters annually. Iran-Turkmenistan gas ties were not limited to merely one pipeline. Turkmenistan opened a second gas pipeline to Iran on January 6, 2010. With the inauguration of the second phase of the project on November 28, the new pipeline more than doubled Turkmenistan's annual gas exports to Iran to 18bn cubic meters.
On Iran-Central Asia oil cooperation, there have been two key projects so far, namely the swap deal and the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran oil pipeline (KTI). The former became operational while the latter remains on hold. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have both initiated low-volume oil swap deals with Iran, delivering oil in tankers to refineries in Iran’s northern regions in exchange for similar volumes of crude at Iranian ports in the Persian Gulf. For the KTI pipeline, while the preliminary stages were ready at the turn of the century, some reasons are behind postponement of the project’s completion.
Regarding the third area of interests (i.e. transportation), Iran’s geographic position –neighbor to Central Asia and Caucasus, Indian Subcontinent, Persian Gulf and Small Asia (Anatolia), lying between Asia and Europe and access to international waters– gives the nation superior status in terms of regional connections. As the Soviet Union collapsed and Central Asian states became independent, Iran, once again, achieved once again its role as a bridge connecting West-East. However, given western restrictions on Iran, Central Asia has been deprived of Iran’s strategic routes. The only ones open to Central Asia have been to the west through Russia, and to the east to China.
Precisely speaking, cotton from Uzbekistan and gas from Turkmenistan are two major trade goods that could be exported via Iranian routes. In this regard, Iran is developing its rail road infrastructure to boost regional trade and net more in transit taxes. By the end of 2014, for instance, the 900-kilometer Uzen-Gorgan railway was run, connecting Iran to Kazakhstan through Turkmenistan. Furthermore, during his visit to Ashgabat, capital city of Turkmenistan, in March 2015, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani announced that Tehran and Ashgabat are determined to accelerate the construction and launch of the ‘South-North corridor’, connecting The Gulf of Oman to Caspian Sea and Central Asia.
Security Interests and Priorities
Four issues and challenges are among Iran's top security-typed objectives and priorities in Central Asia.
First, Iran has been concerned about soft security threats in Central Asian states resulting from the volatile situation in Afghanistan. From the Iranian perspective, the ongoing instability in Afghanistan might spill over into Central Asia through Tajikistan. Moreover, Iran has hosted hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees in recent decades. These refugees not only have been a heavy burden on Iran’s economy, but also are seen to be a threat to law and order.
Second, religious extremism in Central Asia, stemming from Taliban's strict interpretation of Islam, is another Iranian security concern as is the possibility of its rapid spread in the region. Recently, the rise of Daesh in the Middle East and its slight inclination towards terrorist activities in Central Asia creates serious national security worries.
Third, militarization of the Caspian Sea is among top serious security challenge Iran has been facing for decades. Generally speaking, there has been a common belief in the region that deploying military forces in the sea might spur a regional arms contest. The Russian Caspian Flotilla, as the oldest Russian fleet in the Caspian Sea, has been active since 1771 and remains the strongest navy in the region. Inherited from the Soviet Navy, Republic of Azerbaijan has a militarily high status, and gradually has been renewing its fleet in the Caspian Sea. Kazakh Naval fleets in Caspian Sea were also renewed with the help of western governments and Russia. Even, Turkmenistan, which adopted status of permanent neutrality in the United Nations, has taken steps to wield its military power in the Caspian Sea. As a result concerns about military contests in the Caspian Sea region, which could end up in a military conflict between the states on any disputing issues, has increased. Iran's regional priority is to foil any plots which might be directly threatening its national and security interests.
Fourth, Iran perceives the boots of its enemy on the ground in Central Asia as a direct threat to its national security. Iran, indeed, has been a fierce critic of the Central Asian states’ growing security relationship with the U.S. and Israel and has also cautiously lamented the presence of NATO and the OSCE in the region. Iranian officials have always expressed their concerns over NATO/OSCE long-term interventions in the Central Asian affairs and have been concerned about these institutions gradually expanding their areas of activities in the region. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and, accordingly, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, to add insult to injury, intensified Iran's concerns about a foreign military presence in its immediate neighborhood. Iran has always considered the U.S. post-9/11 intervention in the region as a major source of threat to its national interests and security.
Iran-Russia Cooperation in Central Asia: Opportunities and Constraints
It appears that Tehran and Moscow are advancing their distinct economic agendas in Central Asia which consequently decrease the chance of joint cooperation. From a general point of view, Russia’s efforts to maintain economic ties with Central Asian states and to secure a monopoly over different sectors of the economy are designed to limit the real and effective cooperation with other actors, including Iran. In fact, Russia is considering the expansion of trade ties between the Central Asian states and third parties as potentially threatening action, due to the fact that not only could it damage Russia’s standing among the Central Asian states’ trading partners, but also, given the trade partners’ diversification, boost the political and economic bargaining position of the former Soviet states (i.e. Central Asian countries) against Russia. This trend applies roughly to the economic relationship between Central Asian states and Russia, as the latter in particular, lost its rank to China in the region. Although Iran’s economic maneuvering in the region are not akin to that of China, it has its value and importance in terms of long-term outcomes for the region.
In regard to the energy sector, while the energy trading volumes between Iran and Central Asia has been low, the Russian monopolies on energy exports, in particular gas exports, in the region, do not let post-JCPOA Iran, with attractive and market for European firms, expand its energy market to the Central Asian states. Similarly, the growing ties of Iran-Central Asia in the transportation sector, providing the region with alternative routes to Europe and global markets, are not in the Russian national and regional interest. Moscow, for instance, is seeking to secure the main route of the Chinese ‘One Belt, One Road’ megaproject and have it pass through Russian soil.
Nevertheless, given growing Iran-Russia economic ties and Russian initiatives for regional trade cooperation, in particular the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the only viable option Iran and Russia could jointly take in Central Asia is a multilateral relationship. Russia needs to assure itself of Iran’s low-profile economic activities in the region. This is why Moscow overwhelmingly prefers a sort of multilateralism under its leadership with a limited role for Iran in this mechanism. However, it is unclear whether Iran will accept this role with respect to its increased alternatives post-JCPOA or Russia stands firm in its governance of the multilateral mechanism in the region.
Unlike economic issues, Central Asian security paves the way for some sort of cooperation (i.e. bilateral or multilateral). Iran and Russia, both, have been concerned about soft security threats, from drug trafficking to extremism to the possible spread of terrorism in the region. As both states fully share the same view on establishing peace and stability in Central Asia, they strongly agree that the idea of foreign boots on the ground, in particular the U.S. army, is to the detriment of regional security. Thus, it seems security cooperation between Iran and Russia, on the basis of common interests, is based on two simultaneous approaches: bilateral and multilateral cooperation. In this regard, while the preexisting Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) might fit well into the security structure of Central Asia, a variety of factors including Russian-Chinese disagreement on SCO’s function and Beijing’s reluctance to overestimate the security dimension of the Organization, put obstacles in the way of SCO becoming a security mechanism in the region. If Russia and China succeed in attracting the support of regional states, the mere achievement of all parties in a common perception of necessity for cooperation against security threats could prepare the grounds for Iran-Russia security cooperation in Central Asia.
Historically speaking, Iran and Russia, as neighboring nations which have had close bonds of friendship and cooperation with Central Asian states, have drawn up strategies for joint work in the region. While the two concepts of ‘economy’ and ‘security’ have been at the core of the strategies, each of them has been involved in different elements which could shape fundamentally the nature of the Iran-Russia relationship in Central Asia. Their economic priorities and strategies in the region have been more competitive rather than cooperative; however, strong security ties between the two states in Central Asia have been providing a basis for actively regional cooperation. In sum, Iran and Russia need strategic planning and more importantly, to increase their efforts to encourage regional states to pursue the Iranian-Russian agenda.
NB: This article first appeared at "Russia-Iran Partnership: an Overview and Prospects for the Future", co-published by IRAS and RIAC.
Hamidreza Azizi, an assistant professor at Shahid Beheshti University (SBU), is the fellow at IRAS.
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