On May 7, 2016, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani welcomed Turkmenistan’s foreign minister, Rashid Meredov, to Tehran. After their bilateral meeting, Rouhani declared that Iran and Turkmenistan needed to expand their security partnership, because both countries have common interests in counter-terrorism, containing Islamic extremism, and curbing drug trafficking. Rouhani’s call for an Iran-Turkmenistan security partnership is not new. Iran was the first country to recognize Turkmenistan as an independent state in 1991. Ashgabat has also long been described as Iran’s “gateway to Central Asia.” Yet this close partnership is paradoxical. The five small Shiite communities residing in Turkmenistan have been subjected to extensive repression and forced to take their religious practice underground. While Turkmenistan’s authoritarian policies towards Shiites show no signs of easing, Rouhani has strengthened Iran’s security partnership with Ashgabat for two reasons. First, due to a large common border, Iran views Turkmenistan as a crucial partner in preempting a spillover of destabilizing Islamic extremism from Afghanistan. Second, Turkmenistan has taken a hardline stance against Sunni Islamists and ISIS, a position that aligns closely with Iranian foreign policy objectives. We asked Moussa Hashemi Golpayegani, Iran’s former ambassador to Turkmenistan (2010-2015), about Iran-Turkmenistan relations on different issues as well as bilateral security and military cooperation. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What is the contradiction between Iran’s capabilities and the tangible realities to have cordial relations with the Central Asian republics?
“When there are high-level relations as well as a high volume of cooperation between countries, such cooperation would include different political, economic, social, cultural, and security aspects. Naturally, there would also be differences during the cooperation. However, if you establish economic relations with a non-neighboring country, then your differences only affect your economic relations. The case is like that of a brother and sister who, in spite of their differences, enjoy a deeper relationship which is not brittle and cannot be broken. Therefore, being neighbors has many advantages including the creation of a deeper relationship which would resolve any differences that might exist. There are many differences as well as tensions between Iran and Turkmenistan, but they do not cause long-lasting turbidity between our countries. Any sectional differences that might arise are resolved due to this depth in our relations. Iran and Turkmenistan are cooperating in the cultural, historical, political, economic, security, and border aspects. Iran follows her own policies towards Turkmenistan. It does not follow that whatever that country says must be logical and in accord (with our views), though sometimes a degree of tolerance is required in mutual relations.”
Don’t you think we ignore some opportunities in cementing our relations with Turkmenistan?
“I am not saying that we have achieved all the opportunities. I am not criticizing things fundamentally either. However, during the term in office of our last government, we did not view cooperation based on a win-win situation where our interests were concerned. Unfortunately, we made promises which we failed to abide by, and that led to a degree of mistrust in our mutual relations. Trust is the most important aspect in the relations between neighboring countries. This is particularly true about Central Asian countries which have – for so many years – been controlled by the Big Brother. Trust needs time to take root. When you make promises at all levels without fulfilling these promises, the other side would cease to trust you. Of course, some degree of trust was restored during President Ruhani’s visit to Turkmenistan, and the perspectives of further development in mutual relations looks good now. Disregarding your promises is considered as breach of promise. I was ambassador in the former government also, and witnessed how high-level officials would announce to settle Iran’s gas debts to Turkmenistan, and then, two, three months, and even a year would go by without any action being taken in this regard, leading to complete mistrust on the part of Turkmenistan. And when trust is gone, that country would take action towards finding a new source of support and even act via a different camp. Anyway, these countries are newly independent countries and expect Iran to do things for them as an old and powerful country. Iran has, in spite of all its aids, been somewhat negligent in utilizing the existing opportunities and has failed to follow a clear and consistent policy. Each Iranian government has had its own, often contradicting, views, and this had prevented us from utilizing the existing capacities.”
Is it likely to expand our ties with Turkmenistan on different fields, namely water resources and security and military cooperation?
“There are no unsolvable problems in the relations between Iran and Turkmenistan. We have no issues in terms of the Caspian Sea or along our common borders, and there is the possibility of a new understanding between the countries in Rouhani Government based on the win-win rule. If we restore complete trust between our countries, then, there will be the possibility of cooperation in the field of military as well as arms in spite of Turkmenistan’s being a neutral country. In other words, Turkmenistan is in need of military training and equipment and Iran can offer such services due to its vast possibilities and experience in this regard. Our military experts are ready to train Turkmen military forces in different military fields. Due to the present situation in the region arising from the presence of the barbaric DAESH forces, Turkmenistan would have to cooperate with Iran. But our two countries must first prepare the ground for eliminating these terrorist forces.”
Regarding probable military/security cooperation between Tehran and Ashgabat, how do you assess the Russia’s reactions?
“Russia has already recognized Iran’s role in the region, and is acting more clearly in this regard. Russia recognizes the fact that Turkmenistan is now an independent state and that Russia can no longer rule Ashgabat within the framework of its former hegemony. The world has changed, and we cannot follow the ways of 50 years ago when countries were divided and ruled by different hegemonic powers. America and Russia can no longer order any country about. So, why should Russia have any objections if two neighboring countries decide to cooperate in view of the existing dangers and risks in the region? We must consider our mutual interests in this regard.”
How do you see the future of Iran-Turkmenistan ties?
“I see a bright future ahead of us, because two neighboring countries with such great common historical and cultural background as ours would have to cooperate. Since the officials in both our countries view such cooperation favorably, I foresee a very clear outlook in our future relations. The Supreme Leader of Iran particularly recommends extended relations between our countries. During last year’s meeting between Turkmenistan President and the Supreme Leader, the Supreme Leader expressed his willingness to extend relations between the two countries, in reply to which, the President said, “We have come here to be guided and advised by your Highness.” The President later added, “In addition to being the Supreme Leader of Iran, Your Highness is also our spiritual leader.” This kind of speech cannot be regarded as a mere diplomatic compliment, but speaks of their true belief in Iran’s power and credit. Therefore, we shall successfully compete with other countries in this regard. However, we must first organize our internal goals since, in Turkmenistan, the president has absolute power and only his word is followed and executed. By contrast, there are many different organizations in Iran, each of which has its own – sometimes conflicting – views. So, when an Iranian organization announces its own particular views to the Turkmen side, the Turkmens believe it to be and accept it as the official view of the government of Iran. And when the behavior that follows is contradictory, Turkmens lose their initial trust. For this reason, we must duly study their (Turkmen) system and include such knowledge in our behavior as well as in the mutual relations between our countries accordingly. We must thus produce uniform and unanimous statements and actions so as to release them from any doubts that they might have in this regard.”
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