Staunton, October 29 – When the Soviet Union disintegrated, many analysts assumed that Iran would exert a powerful religious influence on the newly emerged countries of Central Asia. That has not happened, but Tehran has assumed an increasing and extremely variegated role in other areas, a development that many have ignored.
In a 4200-word, heavily footnoted article posted online today, A.A. Knyazev, the director of the Bishkek branch of the Institute of the CIS Countries, describes the way in which Iran’s strategy toward the Central Asian countries has evolved as well as how the Iranian government is pursuing its current priorities there (www.islamrf.ru/news/analytics/politics/14036/).
When the current Iranian government took power in 2005, Knyazev says, it “synthesized” the policies of its three predecessors: “achievement of the status of a regional power,” as the last shah had sought; “maximum pragmatism in economics,” as pushed by President Hashemi; and “consistent integration into the world economy,” as pursued by President Hatami.
In the early 1990s, he writes, “immediately after the collapse of the USSR,” Tehran “consistently pursued a more active role in the new states of Central Asia in general and in the first instance in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.” But despite the expectations of many, Iran did not pursue a religiously or ideologically driven agenda.
Instead, as Knyazev shows, its policy toward each of the countries of the region was based on Realpolitik and on the combination of specific factors rather than being only religious. Unfortunately, the Russian analyst continues, the assumption that Iran was doing otherwise blinded many analysts to what was really going on.
In fact, as he observes, “the post-Soviet history of the countries of Central Asia knows a multitude of examples of influence on the religious sphere from the side of a large number of other countries – Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, but in no way by Iran with its Schism, which was from the outset unacceptable” to the Sunnis of the region.
Indeed, throughout the 1990s, he insists, “Iranian influence [in the ideological realm] was limited to the expansion in local markets of Iranian goods” and “the establishment of a network of cultural centers, which drew into the sphere of their influence an extremely limited circle of cultural figures and an insignificant part of the population.”
Moreover, Tehran’s activities in this regard and its more conventional diplomatic activity reflected its growing antagonism to the United States after 2001. And that defined another vector of Iranian policy: its efforts to use ties to Central Asian countries to overcome its American-imposed isolation elsewhere.
In some respects, Knyazev says, Tajikistan represented “an exception.” Culturally and linguistically, the Tajiks and Iranians were close, although the former follows Sunni Islam while the latter is Shiite. But if there were commonalities, he continues, there were also real tensions, the reflection of economic competition and Iranian overreaching toward “a Greater Iran.”
With respect to Turkmenistan, the Bishkek-based scholar says, Ashgabat and Tehran were doomed to cooperate because of their geographic locations and natural gas wealth. But that may have forced cooperation in some areas, but it has done little to lesson mutual suspicions with each looking to others for support.
Turkmenistan viewed its relations with Iran as a counterweight to others and as something that gave real content to its policy of neutrality, while Iran saw Turkmen neutrality as “a restraining factor which allowed Ashgabat to distance itself from participation in international bloc structures,” something Tehran very much wants to promote.
Iran’s relations with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have been more or less stable but not especially close. Tashkent’s pro-American approach and its Islamophobia have limited cooperation with Tehran, and Astana’s Euro-Atlanticist approach has reduced Iranian opportunities with that country.
Iran’s relations with Kyrgyzstan have “never been distinguished by a particular dynamic,” Knyazev says. “The economic and cultural presence of Iran in the republic is at a quite high level but in any case is exceeded by Russian, Chinese and even Turkish activities there,” something Bishkek is well aware of.
Moreover, after 2001, Kyrgyzstan was increasingly drawn into the US orbit, Knyazev says, and that restricted Iran’s ability to gain influence there. Consequently, Iran’s policy has been to play upon Kyrgyz desires not to fall under any one foreign center of gravity rather than count on winning support for itself.
“In general,” Knyazev continues, “one can characterize Iran’s Central Asian policy for the entire post-Soviet period as a quite high level of balancing” among various interests and countries and as the conduct of “ordinary Realpolitik and not any religiously defined messianism.”
That is especially obvious in Tehran’s opposition to “color” revolutions and instability, its approach to negotiations on the Caspian, and its involvement in multi-lateral organizations of which the Central Asian countries are also members. In each case, it has sought to maximize its freedom of action by playing one country or group of countries off against another.
Obviously, Knyazev concludes, all this could change, but in Central Asia, Iran is behaving far more like a traditional power than an ideologically-driven messianic cause, and consequently, Tehran is more likely to continue to behave in this way than to follow another paradigm altogether.