The Iranian foreign policy is a covert startegy of working closely with the Russian-Israeli Mafia and the CIA2/MOSSAD Siamese twins...to further their collective aims in the Greater Middle East and Central Asia.
Since the foundation of modern Iran by the Safavi dynasty in 1501 and until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the Iranian state never had a real opportunity to develop its influence in Central Asia. A balance of power had been established from the 16th century onwards between three competing Muslim empires: the Persian Safavis, the Shaybani Uzbeks, and the Indian Moghols. All of them were using Persian as their administrative language, but were ruled by ethnic Turks. The opposition between them was thus never expressed in ethnic or national terms, but in dynastic and, at least as far as the Safavis were concerned, in religious terms: Shi’ism versus Sunnism. The ascension of Western colonial empires did not much change this picture: the Russians took the place of the Uzbek Khanats, and the British that of the Moghol empire. The main difference was the consecration of Afghanistan as a buffer state whose official language was also Persian. Iran lost its Caucasian possessions to the Russians through the 1813 and 1828 treaties with Georgia, Armenia, and present-day Azerbaijan, the border with present-day Turkmenistan was fixed in 1900 by a joint Irano-Russian commission, while the city of Herat went definitively back to Afghanistan in 1863—from that time on the border between Iran and Afghanistan has been more religious than linguistic. The establishment of the Soviet Union entailed the sealing of the borders with Iran, while two treaties in 1921 and 1940 regulated the relations between both states in terms of borders, status of the Caspian Sea, etc. Relations between Iran and the Soviet Union were never easy: the Russians and then the Soviets intervened regularly inside Iranian territory in 1909, 1921, 1941, and 1945. But after 1949, a modus vivendi was in place, and the Iranian foreign policy was mainly directed towards the Gulf and the Middle East, in terms of the occupation of Tumb and Musa Islands in 1971, intervention in Kurdistan and Baluchistan in 1974, and its discreet alliance with Israel.
The Islamic revolution accentuated this trend towards west and south. Despite the rhetoric about the awakening of Islam in the Soviet Union, Iran kept a low profile before its northern neighbor, even in terms of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After the demise of Imam Khomeyni in June 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union was seen more as a liability to Iran than as an opportunity to expand Iranian influence. The main threat was seen as coming from a coalition of conservative Arab states and Turkey, supported by the United States and Israel. The Iranian policy towards Central Asia after 1991 was cautious, trying to thwart a U.S. and Turkish breakthrough by maintaining close relations with Russia.
But this Irano-Russian axis seems now to be unraveling while Tehran and Washington are undertaking a cautious reassessment of their strained relationship. The reasons for these changes are complex. The Caspian area is acquiring a new strategic dimension because of its developing potential for the production of hydrocarbons. The decrease of the Russian influence around the Caspian Sea is combined with a growing Western and specifically American penetration in the area. The weight of the American sanctions prevents Iran from taking its share of the new deal. The rapprochement between Iran and the conservative Arab States, coupled with Iran’s renunciation of the exportation of revolution, makes the ideological antagonism with Washington look a bit outdated. All this is pushing Iran to devise a more active and constructive policy. For Iran, the real strategic area is more the Caspian Sea than Central Asia stricto-sensu, but the paradox is that the Iranian influence in this area is thwarted by the price Tehran is paying for its past mistakes in policy towards the Middle East. In no other direction does the isolation of Tehran put such an obstacle to a historical opportunity for Iran to become an overall regional power.
The basic tenets of the Iranian revolutionary foreign policy (1979-1988)
The exportation of the revolution was first aimed at the Arab countries; the enemy par excellence was the West, including Israel, and its Arab conservative allies—both for ideological reasons. The Iranian revolution had an anti-imperialist and leftist dimension which should not be underestimated, while its Islamic legitimacy could be upheld only by contesting the Islamic credentials of the Arab Muslim states, especially the Saudi Wahhabis who were very hostile to Shi’ism but who were in control of the Holy Cities. In fact, the Islamic revolution did not achieve any breakthrough among the Sunni population. The distinction as seen from Tehran between “revolutionary” Islamists and conservative Muslims was more based on the Sunni-Shi’a divide than on a real Islamic solidarity. Iran never established strong working connections with the Sunni mainstream Islamist groups—the Pakistani Jama’at-i Islami or the Arab Muslim Brethren. In Lebanon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan, only the Shi’a communities responded to the call for joining the Iranian banner, although many Shi’a leaders, such as Sheykh Shamsuddin in Lebanon, kept their distance. The bulk of the Iraqi Shi’as remain loyal to their state, if not to Saddam Hussein.
The war against Iraq (1980-1988) gave a strategic rationale to Iranian ideological hostility toward the Sunni Arab world: Baghdad got the support of the West as well as all Arab states save Syria, whose alawi regime was engaged in civil war against the Sunni majority. Tehran played the Islamic card to bypass the “Arab front” in order to undermine the legitimacy of the conservative Arab countries and be the main player in the Persian Gulf; it played more precisely the Shi’a card with the Hezbullah in Lebanon, the High Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and, to a lesser extent, the Alawi regime of Syria. “The way to Jerusalem goes through Kerbala” was the motto of the war against Iraq; it meant that the achievement of the Islamic revolution in the Middle East, namely the destruction of Israel, could be reached only by overturning the existing Arab regimes, beginning with Iraq, where Kerbala is located.
All Iranian foreign policy was thus directed towards the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. The little-proclaimed correlative to this was that there was then no enemy on the northern front. Although the USSR was dubbed the “little Satan” and regularly castigated for its occupation of Afghanistan, Imam Khomeyni was keen not to antagonize the Soviets, particularly after the crackdown on the Iranian pro-Soviet Tudeh party in 1983. As far as Central Asia was concerned, little propaganda was waged other than a radio in Turkmen which was established in Gorgan and no organization of Central Asians in exile was established in Qom or Tehran. Apparently no endeavor was made to spread propaganda among the only Shi’a population of the Soviet Union, the Azeris, either. As far as Afghanistan was concerned, Iran condemned the Soviet invasion, but adopted a low profile in the field. It was far more eager to put the Shi’a community of the Hazaras under its control than to unleash it against Soviet troops. A civil war was carried out among the Afghan Shi’as in 1982 which pitched the traditionalist Shura organization against the radical and pro-Iran Nasr and Sepah-i Pasdaran, which got some weapons from Tehran; the latter won, and in 1989 most of the Shi’a movements were united under the umbrella of the Hizb-i Wahdat, headed by the Iran-trained clerics Mazari, Khallili, and Mohaqeq. The Hazara Shi’as had already liberated most of the mountainous territory of central Afghanistan the year before the Soviet invasion, and thus never carried out major military operations against Soviet troops, who, in exchange, never attacked the Hazarajat. The only Shi’a party which was involved in military operations around Kabul, the Harakat-i Islami of Sheykh Mohseni, was on bad terms with Iran and based in Pakistan. Tehran was eager to keep the Shi’a card in order to be a player in any political reshuffling in Afghanistan, but not to see the victory of a Mujahidin movement sponsored by the CIA and the same conservative Arab regimes it was fighting in the Gulf. In fact, Moscow was seen as an important counterweight to the United States which should not be undermined.
The failure of the exportation of the revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1988-1991)
The main pillars of Islamic Iran’s foreign policy collapsed between July 1988 and August 1991. The acceptance by Imam Khomeyni of the cease-fire with Iraq in July 1988 meant that the road to Jerusalem did no more “go through Kerbala.” It was a de facto acceptance of the status quo in the Middle East. The death of Khomeyni in June 1989 meant also the end of the revolutionary era: his successor, Khamene’y, was not a great Ayatollah and had neither his political charisma nor his religious legitimacy. The Gulf War, which lasted from August 1990 to February 1991, revealed that Iran’s foreign policy was now drawn primarily according its national interests: Iran was more eager to forestall the negative consequences of an Iraqi defeat, in terms of the dismantlement of Iraq and the creation of an independent Kurdistan, than to use the circumstances to try for a breakthrough in Iraq, which would have been stalled anyway by the U.S.–Arab coalition. For the first time, the interests of Iran coincided partly with those of the conservative Arab states: a weak but united Iraq. Tehran’s silence when Saddam Hussein shelled Iman Ali’s sacred shrine in Najaf in February 1991 and massacred thousands of Shi’as showed also that the Shi’a solidarity was not what it had been before.
But the biggest blow for Iran was certainly the collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991. Totally unexpected in Tehran, it suddenly opened a vacuum on the northern side of Iran and gave the “Great Satan” (the United States) a quasi-hegemony on world order. The Russian counterweight disappeared precisely when the Gulf War provided the impetus for a long-term American military buildup in the Persian Gulf. To make things worse, all Arab States, plus Turkey, were scheduled soon to participate in American-sponsored peace negotiations.
Iran tried to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union. In June 1989, just after the death of Imam Khomeyni, Rafsanjani, then Speaker of the Parliament, went to Moscow and Baku. On June 23, he delivered the Friday’s khotba (preach) in Baku’s official mosque and, while praising Gorbachev, warned against the dissolution of the USSR. Iran’s position was regularly reiterated more or less openly: the collapse of the USSR works in favor of the West, not of Islam. During the crisis in Azerbaijan from December 1989 to January 1990, Tehran sent signals to Moscow that it would not put oil into the fire. This was sometimes expressed in a very Iranian way: on January 23, 1990, some 160 members of the Majlis sent a letter to Gorbachev stating that “the people of Soviet Azerbaijan are expressing their desire to return to the bosom of Islam.” Knowing that the demonstrations in Baku were spearheaded by the nationalist and secular Popular Front, this apparent solidarity was in fact a clear way for Iran to distance itself from Azeri nationalism—“give them Islam, not independence” was the real message. In March, tens of thousands of Armenians marched in Tehran to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the massacres, a move which would have been impossible without the government’s blessing: it was another clear signal that Tehran would not endorse the Azeri cause against Armenia. By the same token, when Tehran invited a Tajik delegation for the anniversary of Imam Khomeyni’s death in June 1990, it carefully selected as many officials, who were opposed to the independence, as mollahs. Focusing on the Soviet Union and then on Russia, fearing that NATO could extend to the Caspian Sea states such as Azerbaijan, Tehran did not grasp the strength of the new nationalism and was slow to adapt to the situation, giving the impression to the newly independent States that Iran was discounting their very existence.
The status quo in the Middle East and the shift to Central Asia (1992-1997)
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Iranian isolation was aggravated by the launching of the peace process in 1994. Even the lasting alliance between Iran and Syria would have been threatened in case of a return of the Golan Heights to Damascus, followed by a peace treaty between the two former enemies. This sense of isolation pushed Iran to violently oppose the peace process, which led, after the “dual containment policy” of 1993, to the ILSA legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in July 1995 that sanctioned all investments over US $20 million in Iran and applied to international as well as American corporations. The isolation of Iran in the Middle East was thus completed in 1995.
In response, Iran adopted from 1995 onward a more moderate policy towards the Middle East. On one hand, it mended the fences with the conservative Arab states, leading to the Islamic Summit of December 1997 in Tehran. On the other hand, the failure of the peace process after Netanyahu’s election has divided the Arab front again, ensuring that the Syrian alliance with Iran will last. In fact, Iranian foreign policy towards the Gulf and the Middle East has reached a point of equilibrium. Iran does recognize the security requirements of the conservative Arab states, hence implicitly a long-term U.S. military presence in the Gulf. The Iranian policy consists now in building confidence with these states in order to obtain in the long term a reduction in U.S. military presence. This supposes that Iran adopts a low profile in favor of the status quo. The absence of support for the Shi’as from Bahrain when they demonstrated against the Sunni ruling autocracy in 1996 and the successive visits of Rafsanjani, Kharazi, and Nateq Nuri in the area in the spring of 1998 show that this policy is based on a consensus in Iran. Iranian support for the Lebanese Hezbullah remains strong, but the Hezbullah is now considered a Lebanese political party more than a revolutionary organization.
The imposition of the status quo in the Middle East as well as in the Persian Gulf left little room for an active Iranian policy in the area. On the other hand, the assertiveness of the newly independent states and the development of oil and gas production in the Caspian area obliged Iran to adopt a more creative policy toward Central Asia.
The demographic and economic shift from Southern to Northern Iran: the increasing role of the Caspian Sea hub
Besides the reluctant acceptance of the status quo in the Middle East, another explanation for the slow shift of Iranian foreign policy towards Central Asia is the change in the center of gravity of the Iranian economy and demography. Northeast Iran is experiencing increasing development, in comparison to that of the South and the West. War damages in Abadan and Khorramshahr have not been totally compensated, while a huge part of the Persian-speaking population in Khuzistan has left for the North. Conversely, Khorassan province has undergone a huge development. Mashhad is now the second largest city in Iran. The creation of the new province of Golestan around Gorgan which is the first Iranian province with a Sunni majority is a clear sign of the shift in demographic balance: this entails the need for new energy supplies, especially gas for domestic cooking and heating, which could be better provided by the Caspian fields than by the more distant South Iran fields.
The lack of Iranian leverage in Central Asia: Islam, culture, and ethnicity
The problem for Iran after 1991 has been the lack of both expertise and leverage in Central Asia. Despite formal speeches about the “common cultural heritage” of Islam and Persian, Iran does not have real leverage in central Asia, and even less expertise. The “Shi’itization” of Iran in the 16th Century created a real cultural border with the countries where Persian was the language of culture but which remained Sunni—Afghanistan, Northern India, and Central Asia. A specifically Persian-based culture flourished before dwindling, not without largely influencing the new cultures rooted in more recent literary languages such as Urdu, Pashtu, Chaghatay, and now Uzbek. The common heritage of writers such as Rudaki, Saadi, and Hafez remains from Baku to Dushanbe and Kabul, but anything written in Iran after it became Shi’a had little or no impact in the Sunni areas, while the Iranian public for the most part does not care for books or poetry written in Persian and published outside Iran.
The weakness of the Islamic leverage
As we saw, the logic of Islamic Iran was to rely on Shi’a communities abroad. This gave Iran leverage in Afghanistan, although the Shi’as there are in the minority, but none in Central Asia. The only exception is Azerbaijan, which is supposedly between 60 to 80 percent Shi’a. Contrary to the Sunni official Soviet clerics, however, no Azeri Shi’a have been sent to Iran or even Najaf during the Soviet period. Shukrullah Pashazade (the present Sheykh-ul Islam) has been educated in the Soviet Sunni schools of Boukhara and Tashkent, and most of the Muslim officials, such as Hajji Sabir, head of the Islamic Institute, speak Arabic and not Persian. In central Asia and Azerbaijan, Iran did not have the clerical connections that were so efficient for mobilizing the Shi’a communities in Lebanon and Afghanistan. The bulk of the Central Asian Muslims are Sunni Hanafi, and their historical connections were with the Indian subcontinent, or, to a lesser extent, with the Volga Tatars, themselves closer to the Ottoman reformist movements. The first links were revived during the perestroika years. In a word, the different movements, whether reformist or fundamentalist, which found their way among the Central Asian Muslims, have nothing to do with Iran. The new Islamic leaders, officials as well as opponents, have either been trained in Arab countries such as Jordan for the Tajik Turajanzade or in the Indian subcontinent after independence, through missionary movements like Jama’at ul Tabligh or political organizations like the Pakistani Jama’at-i Islami. When a radical Islamist movement emerged in the Soviet Union in 1990 (the Islamic Renaissance Party), most of its references were to Sunni thinkers such as Maududi and Hassan al Banna, and not to Iranian ones, except among the Tajik branch of the party. But, interestingly enough, the IRP was also in favor of maintaining the Soviet Union, in the fear that in case of independence, ethnic nationalism would prevail over the common Islamic identity and that the Muslims remaining in Russia (Tatars and Northern Caucasians) would be a small minority. In the Tajik presidential elections of November 1991, the All-Union IRP called for voting in favor of Rahman Nabiev, former first secretary of the Tajik Communist Party, while the Tajik IRP split and supported the nationalist Khodanazarov. The “Islamic” solidarity has been blurred from the beginning by ethno-nationalist identities, and would appear very soon trapped as much into “localist” and clannish identities, thus reducing its strategic effect.
In 1998, it seems that no Central Asian clerics are trained in the Iranian religious schools, while some hundreds of Azeris and Afghans are studying in Qom. No Islamist movement has an office in Tehran or Qom, if we except the Afghans. The United Tajik Opposition had a high level of representation until March 1998, when Akbar Turajanzade left for Dushanbe. Some rumors said that the Uzbek Islamist opponent Tahir Yuldashev passed through Tehran, but the office and the bulk of the Uzbek IRP’s militants are in Lahore, Pakistan, while there are “ethnic” Central Asian guest houses in Medina and Mecca.
The neglect of ethnic solidarity and the strength of local nationalism
Iran did not use the ethnic leverage, either, for obvious reasons. To play ethnicity could backfire in a multi-ethnic Iran. For instance, Iran would never acknowledge an ethnic solidarity with the Azeris, because it could stir up ethnic Azeri feelings in Iran. To play on ethnic identity with the Tajiks would have also antagonized the “Turks” (Uzbeks, Kyrgys, Kazakhs, etc.) who make up the bulk of the population of the newly independent Muslim states. The reluctance to play on ethnicity is nevertheless a constant pattern of Islamic Iran’s foreign policy: in Afghanistan for example, Iran never built a special relationship with the only “Persian” party, the Jamiat-i Islami of B. Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Masud; instead it stuck to the Shi’a parties and desperately tried to find a Pashtun connection based on ideological proximity, such as G. Hekmatyar. During Rafsanjani’s trip to Uzbekistan in 1994, when he had to find a mosque in Samarkand to go for prayer, he chose the small Shi’a mosque where the dominant language is Uzbek and avoided the big Persian-speaking, but Sunni, mosque. On the one hand, Iran did not make the same blunder as the Turks, who considered all Central Asians to be “ethnic brothers”—that is, Turks. But on the other hand, Iran underestimated national feelings in Central Asia in considering that these countries were lacking a genuine culture and history.
A common cultural heritage hijacked by ethnic nationalism
A last connection, beyond Islam and ethnicity, is regularly mentioned as the “common cultural heritage.” But neither the Iranians nor the Central Asian republics acknowledged the real basis for a common cultural ground: the “Turko-Persian” synthesis, where a Sunni Persian culture has profoundly penetrated the Turkic languages and societies, and conversely where population from Iranian stock have been linguistically Turkicized. Such a concept runs counter to the new nationalisms, which are based on ethnicity and national languages. Uzbekistan looks after Tamerlan as the true “Uzbek” and is not interested in acknowledging the Persian side of the “Timurid” culture. For most of the Iranians, on the other hand, the Iranian identity is based on a synthesis not so much between Islam and “Persianity” as between Persianity and Shi’ism. This ambivalence on the relations between Shi’ism and Persianity was particularly felt by the Tajiks when they tried to emphasize their cultural proximity with Iran by posing as the forerunners of Persian identity, and not as followers of the modern Iranian Shi’a culture. Tehran, uneasy with the ethnic and cultural links, regularly underlines the linguistic tie, that is the use of Persian: the Iranian bookshop in Dushanbe stresses more Persian than Islam, contrary to its counterpart in Baku, but very little has been done to give a political dimension to this low-profile linguistic solidarity.
The limits of the Iranian influence
There is a general distrust toward Iran in the different republics, especially in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. All of them are asserting secularism and fear Islamic militancy. Even if Iran did little to support Islamic radicalism, there is a general misgiving regarding the concept of an Islamic republic. The vocal references to Islam made by Iranian officials increase the distrust of the Central Asian officials. Most of the Middle Eastern and Iranian affairs experts of the new republics were trained in the Soviet Union and are fluent in Arabic and less often in Persian; many of them went to Afghanistan on the Soviet side. They know the potential for Islamic militancy in their own countries, and they do not trust Iran.
Such misgivings are not alleviated by Iran’s attitude of superiority. Iran regularly presents itself as a kind of elder brother who can teach lessons to the young countries in terms of strategy, Islam, culture, and even language in the case of the Tajiks. These prejudices are unfortunately shared by many Iranians outside official circles.
There are also obvious limits to the Iranian economic influence. If trans-border trade is flourishing with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, the overall picture of economic cooperation does not favor Iran. In Turkmenistan, for example, where official trade cooperation is working well, Iran makes only 0.6 percent of the non-CIS foreign imports. To improve its overall cooperation with Central Asia, Iran is relying on the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), whose seat is in Tehran. The founding charter was signed in Islamabad on November 28, 1992; ECO includes Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan, plus the five Central Asian republics. But ECO is a forum for discussion, and has not achieved much in terms of cooperation.
The basic tenets of the Iranian policy towards Central Asia
Iran’s policy toward Central Asia evolved from a conservative and cautious attitude towards the newly independent states to a more assertive policy based on the role it would like to play in providing landlocked countries with gas and oil. Iran has from the beginning played down the ideological dimension of this issue. The main aim of Iranian foreign policy has been to prevent the United States and its Turkish and Saudi (on the religious field) allies to fill the vacuum left by the fall of the Soviet Union. Iran never thought that it could fill the vacuum itself. It played the Russian card, on a North-South strategic axis (Moscow-Erevan-Tehran) to oppose the East-West axis (Washington-Ankara-Baku-Tashkent). The competition between the different pipelines mirrors this strategic double axis: East-West for the Americans (Trans-Caspian, Baku, Georgia, Turkey), North-East for Moscow and Tehran (Baku-Novorossisk and CPC for Russia, connection with the Iranian networks to the Oman Gulf for Iran).
But the decreasing Russian influence, as well as the fact that Russia is more and more playing business and not strategy, is pushing Iran to try to mend fences with Washington. Energy issues dictate strategy at the expense of ideology.
The reliance on a Tehran-Moscow axis
The departure of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in February 1989 put an end to the only real bone of contention between Tehran and Moscow, thus allowing the conjunction of interests to appear in open light. The alliance with Moscow has two dimensions: strategic and military.
On the strategic level, Iran wanted the Russians to maintain a kind of tutelage on the newly independent states in order to thwart the U.S. breakthrough and buy time to restore its own position in the area. The two countries were reluctant to see the new states achieving full-fledged independence too soon. Iran wanted the Russians to retain some leverage. It never hid the fact that it preferred to have Russian troops and border guards under Russian command on the other side of all its borders with the former Soviet Union, than to have national armies or uncontrolled militias. Iran and Russia are included in the same strategic alignments. In the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict, both Iran and Russia claimed to have a position of neutrality and brokerage but have not hidden their pro-Armenian sentiments. They oppose any Turkish influence in the area, and both states have cool relations with Uzbekistan and Georgia. Although they support antagonist groups in Tajikistan, they both support the creation of a coalition government and share an interest in preventing Uzbekistan from playing a role in the conflict. Tajikistan is the only case were the policies of the two countries diverged: in 1992, Iran was without a doubt supporting the Islamic opposition against the pro-Russia Kulabi faction, but it adopted a more flexible attitude even before the fall of the Islamo-democratic coalition in December 1992. In Afghanistan, both Russia and Iran have been supporting the anti-Taliban coalition since 1994. Iran as well as Russia advocate joint sovereignty (a condominium) on the Caspian Sea, at least until early 1998, and oppose the territorial division of the waters. Iran has been very cautious not to support the Chechens against Moscow.
The Tehran-Moscow axis is not a love story. Both sides have misgivings towards the other. The Russians do not miss an opportunity to style themselves as the last European bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism, while the Iranians still see the Russians as “newcomers” in the area. By playing Iran, Russia does not intend to allow it to build a sphere of influence in its backyard: as we shall see, Moscow brought its Tajik allies only reluctantly to the table of negotiation. Moscow also has no interest in seeing Central Asian gas and oil flowing south through Iran. The strategic alliance between Moscow and Tehran is fragile.
But there is also a strong military dimension on the Iranian side. Iran, exhausted by eight years of war against Iraq and by the Western ban on weapons, needs to rebuild its conventional forces. It relied on Moscow to supply weapons and also to replace the Europeans and Japanese for its nuclear program. MiGs 29 fighters and SA 6 anti-aircraft missiles were delivered in 1990, followed two years later by the sale of submarines (three have been delivered between 1992 and 1997) and 24 SU-24 bombers. In fact, these weapons did not come as a real threat for the U.S. troops in the Gulf: they were aimed at restoring the military balance with Iraq and to a lesser extent with Turkey. More worrisome for Washington and Tel Aviv was the issue of nuclear cooperation. In February 1995 the Russians announced that they would build four civilian nuclear plants in Iran. They also helped to complete the Bushehr atomic energy plant.
Russia has been under heavy pressure from the U.S. Congress to halt its delivery of nuclear-related material to Iran, with some success. But China seems now to have replaced the Russians in terms of weapons sales, thus reducing the importance of Russia for Iran.
The renunciation of the exportation of the revolution
Iranian has avoided, with the exception of Tajikistan and to a lesser extent Azerbaijan, to play the Islamic card in Central Asia. The first reason is of course the will not to antagonize the Russians. Interestingly enough, it is in the Islamist Tajik press that a speech of Rafsanjani was published warning about the negative effects of the collapse of the USSR, namely an American breakthrough in the area. The second reason is the lack of Islamic leverage in Central Asia. A last reason, and a consequence of the latter, is that the Iranian foreign policy towards Central Asia has been entirely shaped by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with little or no interference from the other revolutionary institutions such as Pasdaran, the Office of Islamic Propaganda, or the different secret services.
This does not mean that Iran never tried to play the Islamic card. Iran gave support to the Tajik IRP in 1992 and provided asylum in Tehran to some of its leaders, such as Qazi Akbar Turajanzade. Many militants of the IRP utilized Iranian-type slogans, dress, and revolutionary rhetoric during the civil war of 1992. But once in exile, it appeared that most of the militants went to Pakistan and Afghanistan and were supported by Pakistan-based Sunni movements, including Arab militants. The main figure of the Islamic opposition, Mollah Nuri, was established in Taloqan, Afghanistan, and Peshawar.
In Azerbaijan, a pro-Iranian “Islamic Party” (Islam Partyasi) was established in September 1992. The Islamic Party found some support in the refugee camps managed by the Iranian Red Crescent inside Azeri territory under an agreement signed with Baku in September 1993, officially to prevent refugees from entering Iran. But in 1998 Iran turned these camps over to the UNHCR, and the influence of the Islamic Party, banned in 1996, seems now to be decreasing.
Bookshops supported by the Iranian Ministry of Guidance have been opened in Dushanbe and Baku, selling both classical Persian books and works from the main Iranian political authors. Interestingly enough, most of the books are in Persian, and very few are translated in Azeri or adapted to the Cyrillic alphabet for the Tajiks. Iran also wanted to open cultural centers, but was rebuked by all the states.
In fact, Tehran uses double standards easily. An absolute pragmatism might go along with strong ideologically worded statements. A good example is the opportunistic reference to the Israeli role. Tehran vehemently condemns the close relations between Israel and Azerbaijan, while it keeps silent about the huge Israeli influence in Turkmenistan, where the Iranian NIOC has partial ownership of a plant in which the Israeli society Mehrav owns the lion’s share; Nyazov made an official trip to Israel in May 1995 without being castigated by Iran as the Azeri president used to be.
Entering the pipelines game: ILSA and the American wrath
Entering the pipelines game is for Iran both a strategic and an economic priority. The country that will provide the outlets for the Caspian energy hub will be one of the real regional powers, not to mention one of the richest powers from the royalties for the transit. On the other hand, as we saw, Iran might also benefit from a general reshuffle of the pipelines system and use swap agreements to consume Caspian gas in its northern developed areas and export its own gas directly from the south. If the Caspian states are competitors as far as exportation is concerned, they might also help Iran reshape its pipelines networks to meet the needs for development in the north.
Pipes are also the only incentive Iran has to offer to the landlocked Central Asian republics. Russia is an obstacle for the exportation of Caspian gas and oil, by bluntly preventing it, as in the case of Turkmenistan, or by asking for huge royalties and the lion’s share of the benefits. While Azerbaijan could bypass Russia and go through Georgia and Turkey, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are more eager to find southern outlets. Pipes going through Iran would be far cheaper than the other projects (under US $1 billion for Iran, $2 billion for Afghanistan, $3 to $4 billion through Georgia and Turkey). And, paradoxically, Iran is the most stable country in the area and is a reliable partner in business deals.
The main problem for Iran is the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), signed by President Clinton in August 1995. But U.S. pressure extends further than ILSA. In April 1995, under American pressure, Iran was expelled from the Azeri consortium under charges of exploiting the offshore fields. Exxon got the five percent allotted to the NIOC. In November 1997 the U.S. government, through Secretary of Energy F. Pena, officially endorsed the trans-Caspian Baku-Supsa-Ceyhan road to export oil from the Caspian Sea. Iran has thus to overcome the misgivings of the Central Asian states, who are caught between two predicaments: they need such an outlet (more in the case of Turkmenistan, less in Kazakhstan), but their strategic priority is to build strong bilateral ties with Washington. Most of them adopted a low profile with Iran, except Turkmenistan: during his trip to Washington in May 1998, Nyazov unsuccessfully battled to have the Turkmenistan-Iran-Turkey pipe excluded from the ILSA.
Iran’s priority is to obtain the cancellation of ILSA legislation, or at least a relaxation of its extension, concerning for instance the northern Iran gas pipe from Turkmenistan to Turkey. Tehran is playing on the big Western companies by hinting that the ones who are ready to take risks now will have the lion’s share of profits after the inevitable abolition of ILSA. More and more U.S. companies are criticizing the contradictions in the American policy, which plays on the newly independent states but prevents them from becoming fully independent by pushing them into the Russian fold. Iran hopes that pressure from the business milieu will be strong enough to get rid of ILSA without making significant political concessions. But, on the other hand, the Iranians know that any breakthrough in Central Asia has to go along with an improvement in relations with Washington. The interview of president Khatami with CNN in January 1998 and the Iranian moderation in foreign policy, despite strong statements and the continuation of military buildup and an official civil nuclear program, showed that the issue of Iran-U.S. relations is at the core of the reassessment of Iranian foreign policy.
In the short term, Iran is pushing for swap agreements which will provide for its northern gas consumption and oil refineries while it will sell gas and oil from its southern fields on behalf of the producing states. In February 1996 an agreement was signed with Turkmenistan to build a gas pipeline in Turkmenistan at a cost of US $150 million; a section of 150 km linking both networks was inaugurated in December 1997. An agreement was signed with Kazakhstan in August 1996 concerning 2Mt per year of oil. The capacities of the Tabriz and Mashhad refinery plants are about the equivalent of what could be carried by pipelines from the Caspian Sea. An Iranian proposal is to treat 700,000 bd. coming from the Azeri offshore fields and from Turkmenistan.
In the longer term, Iran would like to become the hub for Central Asian pipelines. In April 1998, Iran announced a joint venture between Bonyad-e Mostazafan, Shell, British Gas, and Petronas to build a gas pipeline from the South Pars field to Pakistan, in competition with the UNOCAL project in Afghanistan.
The Turkmenistan-Iran-Turkey gas pipe seems the first likely to be completed. Following three agreements (August 1994, June 1995, and December 1996), the three presidents met in Ashkhabad on May 14, 1997, to sign the agreement despite U.S. sanctions. In August the U.S. State Department hinted that this agreement did not come under ILSA, but changed its mind some months after.
The question of the Caspian Sea
The controversy over the Caspian Sea is a good example of Iran’s isolation and of the decreasing reliability of Russian support for Iran. Iran and Russia used to share the same conception of Caspian Sea status. Referring to the treaties of 1921 and 1940 between the Soviet Union and Iran, they considered the Caspian Sea a closed sea which should be administered through an agreement of joint sovereignty (a condominium). Conversely, Azerbaijan, and to a lesser extent Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, favors a territorial division. Turkmenistan officially favored the condominium, but made it clear that it would accept a division should its dispute with Azerbaijan on their respective territorial waters be settled. The oil companies as well as the United States also support the territorial division. It is obvious that such a solution is not in favor of Iran, which holds only a small portion of the Caspian shore. Although Iran, during the Soviet period, had never made any claim on a share of the oil production on the Soviet side of the Caspian, it considers nowadays that all the newly independent states should be considered as heirs of the former Soviet Union, and hence signatories to the 1921 and 1940 treaties. This created an antagonistic relationship between Iran and the Caspian states.
Iran’s position worsened when in May 1998 Moscow changed its position. A provision of the treaty between Russia and Kazakhstan recognized Kazakhstan’s rights to the subsoil natural resources, while creating a joint control over the sea water. Although this does not amount to a full acceptance of territorial division, the new treaty de facto abrogated the Russo-Iranian condominium by not consulting Iran. This legal setback for Iran amounted also to a political defeat, as there was no previous consultation between Moscow and Tehran. The Russian leaders made clear that they were heading towards a territorial division, particularly under the influence of the Russian company, Lukoil, which was eager to join the pool of the multinational companies. This sudden change of the Russian position took Tehran off-guard.
The Iranians reacted first by claiming “their” share of the Sea—that is, 50 percent, considering that the new states are on the former Soviet lot. But Tehran sidetracked rapidly. During Nyazov’s visit on July 7, 1998, a joint declaration was issued with Turkmenistan stating that any decision should be made unanimously by all littoral states. Iran made thus a step towards a change in the status of the Sea. Nyazov was soon followed in Tehran on July 18 by Boris Pastukhov, the Russian deputy prime minister in charge of the Caspian Sea. The joint declaration agreed that each littoral country should have a share of 20 percent of any natural resources—an amount calculated not on the basis of the territorial waters, but by putting on a equal foot all the littoral states—but left open the question of the legal status of the Sea.
The only common ground between Iran and Russia on the Caspian Sea is their opposition to the trans-Caspian pipeline, which would be constructed on the seabed between Turkmenbashi (former Krasnovodsk) and Baku. Their opposition is officially based on environmental considerations, but their real concern is strategic. Such a pipeline would direct the Central Asian and Caspian gas and oil production on an East-West road, to the detriment of a North-South axis. But even on this North-South axis, Tehran and Moscow are competitors.
In fact, in relation to the foreseeable production of the Caspian fields over the next 10 years, such a trans-Caspian pipeline does not make economic sense; a renovated Baku-Georgia pipeline, which should be achieved mid-1999, the existing outlets through Russia, and swaps agreements with Iran would be sufficient for oil production. The trans-Caspian pipe makes sense only to allow an eventual Baku-Ceyhan (Turkey) pipe to be profitable. It is clear that most of the maneuvers around the pipes and the legal status of the Sea are driven by strategic and not purely economic considerations: specifically, to implement under U.S. auspices an East-West axis from Kazakhstan (and China?) to Turkey, which will bypass both Russia and Iran. Now more than ever, Iran needs to mend the fences with Washington in order not to be isolated.
Relations between Iran and Armenia are determined by history but also by a common hostility to Azerbaijan and Turkey. Iran has a tradition of supporting the Armenians against the Turks. There is an influential Armenian community in Iran of some 200,000 people. But the connections between Iran and the independent Armenia go back to the 80s. The Armenian Asala activist group was based in the Beka’a valley in close contact with the Iranian Pasdaran. Officially, Iran remains neutral in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabagh and does not endorse independence or reattachment to Armenia. In April 1993, during an Armenian offensive inside Azerbaijan, Rafsanjani warned both sides that they should find a settlement, but did not condemn the Armenian attack. In August of the same year, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati came to Baku for mediation, at the height of the ultimate Armenian offensive. On September 7 he called for an Armenian withdrawal. In December 1993, Rasul Guliev, chairman of the Azeri parliament, came to Tehran and met Rafsanjani: Tehran renewed its readiness to mediate. Aliev came to Tehran on June 29, 1993 and met Rafsanjani. But all these moves could not hide the Iranian support. Iran helped to disenclave Armenia. In 1995 a deal to provide Iranian gas to Armenia was announced. A new bridge was built in 1992 and a loan of US $62 million was provided by Tehran. Iran is now the second largest trade partner of Armenia, after Russia. Dozens of Iranian trucks cross the border daily, where customs checking is minimum, in contrast to the heavy control on the Iranian-Azeri border.
Although Azerbaijan is a Shi’a country, the relations with Iran are tense. President Elchibey antagonized Iran by his close connections with Turkey, the United States, and Israel, and more clearly by his claim on “southern Azerbaijan.” Iran criticized Azerbaijan’s will to leave the CIS and was in favor of maintaining Russian troops on the border. The coming into power of Aliev in 1993 did not change this picture, although he dismissed the claim on the southern border. Currently, the idea of a “Greater Azerbaijan” has no appeal among the Iranian Azeris; conversely, many of them think that “Northern Azerbaijan,” lost in 1823, should come back into the fold of the motherland. Nevertheless, riots in Qazvin in August 1994 protesting the refusal by the Iranian parliament to make a separate Qazvin province showed that there is some sensitivity regarding the Azeri issue in Iran. The situation might worsen for Iran if an oil-rich Azerbaijan becomes a pole of attraction for an economically depressed Iran, and also a bridgehead for Turkey and the United States. Baku has also taken a radical stand on the full territorial division of the Caspian waters, against Tehran’s interests.
The Azeri are very bitter concerning Iranian help to Armenia. Velayati’s visit in March 1996 ended in a diplomatic incident: while his counterpart Gusseynov criticized Iranian support for Armenia, Velayati openly condemned the relations between Baku and Tel Aviv. Nevertheless, in May 1997 Iran’s oil Industries Engineering signed a US $1.5 billion deal to develop the Lenkoran and Talysh offshore fields. But the bilateral relations remain poor: there is only a twice-weekly flight between the two capitals.
Relations with Turkmenistan are shaped by an absolute pragmatism and centered on economic cooperation. S. Nyazof’s regime has nothing to do with what could be labeled in Tehran a “friendly” regime: the Constitution officially states that the country is secular (dünyavi); Israel and Turkish companies play an important role in the economy; Turkmenistan has an agreement with the U.S. company UNOCAL which is working with the Taliban; etc. Nevertheless, Turkmenistan has the record for the greatest number of bilateral meetings at the highest level: on May 25, 1994, Nyazov and Rafsanjani met in Mashhad and initiated cooperation centered on desenclavement through Iran. They met again on August 22 in Tehran and on October 26 in Ashkhabad; then on July 4, 1995, January 1996, July 1996, February 1997, and July 1998—all in Tehran. A cooperation agreement regarding banking, customs, and transportation was signed in January 1995. In June 1995 a deal was announced to build a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Iran. In August 1995 a trade agreement was signed between Iran, Turkmenistan, and Armenia. Northern Iran has been provided with Turkmen gas since December 1997.
Turkmenistan is the country which most needs the Iranian outlets, while Tehran, which has no hope of finding leverage in a country so historically opposed to Iran, is happy to present a window of pragmatic economic cooperation with no ideological dimension. Tehran made a big fuss over the opening of the Sarakhs-Mashhad railway link, which connects the Central Asian (and Russian) railway network with the Indian Ocean and Turkey. A dozen heads of state attended the opening ceremony on May 13, 1996, but the aftermath was disappointing: few goods and less travelers used the link. Iran and Turkmenistan might even become competitors for gas delivery to Pakistan.
Uzbekistan has very cool relations with Iran, although there are few real bones of contention. In October 1993 an Iranian presidential visit in Tashkent did not go very well, partly because Karimov refused to let an Iranian cultural center open in Samarkand. The first concern of Tashkent was the spread of Islamic fundamentalism; the second a revival of Tajik nationalism, possibly supported by Tehran, which could stir up problems among the Persian-speaking population of Samarkand and Boukhara. It took some time for the Uzbeks to acknowledge that the Islamist threat was not a tool for Iran, but for Pakistan. The fear of Tajik irredentism was temporarily quelled by the civil war in Tajikistan, which left the country divided and weak. But in 1997, the success of the inter-Tajik negotiations sponsored by Tehran and Moscow, and the support of both countries for Ahmed Shah Masud in northern Afghanistan, led the Uzbek leaders to fear that both states could stir up Tajik nationalism against Uzbekistan. A Moscow-Tehran axis in support of Tajik nationalism would be a nightmare for Tashkent. Tashkent failed to be a player in Tajikistan when a rebellion of the ethnic Uzbek commander M. Khodaberdaiev was crushed in Dushanbe in August 1997. The other Uzbek card, the Leninabadi clan, was excluded from the negotiations. Eager to introduce a rift in the Moscow-Tehran axis, Tashkent moved slightly towards Moscow. The Tajik pro-Russian president, Rahmanov, made two visits to Tashkent in 1998. The joint declaration between Tashkent, Moscow, and Almaty in early May 1998, pledging to fight against “Islamic fundamentalism,” stirred protest from the United Tajik Opposition and from Iran’s IRIB Television.
In any case, Tashkent benefited from 1994 on from close relations with Washington. Uzbekistan is the only country in the area to have supported ILSA. It also has a defense cooperation agreement with Washington. Netanyahu made a stopover in Tashkent on May 25, 1998. But Islam Karimov attended the Islamic conference in Tehran on December 1997.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan
Relations with Kazakhstan are rather distant and based on a number of trade and transportation agreements in January 1996 and July 1997. Swap agreements are already in effect. Prime Minister S. Tereshenko went to Tehran in May 1994 and met Vice President Habibi. President Nazarbaiev attended the opening ceremony of the railway from Turkmenistan to Iran in May 1996. In this context, the incrimination of Iranian nationals for spying on the U.S. embassy in February 1998 apparently did not cast a shadow on Irano-Kazakh relations. But, interestingly enough, it is the Chinese who are establishing a closer link between Iran and Kazakhstan. A pipeline constructed by China should link the Uzen fields with Xinjiang in 2004, while a contract has been signed to build an Uzen-Iran connection through Turkmenistan, thus paving the way for an Iran-Pacific (and Japan) pipeline through China in the next 15 years.
With Kyrgyzstan, the relations are very poor and even strained. Tehran objected openly to the close relations between Bishkek and Tel Aviv, while keeping silent on the Israelo-Turkmen relations. The Kyrgyz Interior Minister, Felix Kulov, incriminated Iran for the Wahhabi activities in Osh in 1998.
Tajikistan was the only opportunity for Iran to establish a foothold in Central Asia, through a strong Islamist movement there which advocated both Persian and Islamic identity. Nevertheless, the Iranian embassy in Dushanbe, headed by the senior and brilliant diplomat Ali Mojtahed-Shabestari, while supporting the Islamic opposition during the civil war of 1992, has always been eager to maintain relations with the “neo-communist” faction and then-government in Tajikistan. The Iranians rapidly acknowledged the localist nature of political alignments in Tajikistan, the neo-communists coming from the Kulab province and the Islamists originating in the Gharm valley. The Iranian embassy, contrary to its Pakistani counterpart, was not closed in December 1992 when the neo-communist Kulabi faction took the capital. Although cold, the relations with the government of President Imamali Rahmanov never ceased. In July 1995, Rahmanov paid an official visit to Tehran, a visit followed by a series of cooperation agreements in different fields.
In fact, as soon as the defeat of the opposition was obvious, Tehran endeavored to advocate a political solution centered on a coalition between Kulabis and Gharmis. It finds itself, like in Afghanistan, on the same track as the special envoy of the UN Secretary General (R. Piriz-Ballon from 1993 to 1995, and then G. Merrem until 1998); this position at the beginning ran counter to that of the Russians, who were not primarily interested in real negotiations and used the civil war as a reason for maintaining a military presence in Central Asia; the Americans, who were supporting a coalition between Kulabis and the Northern Leninabadis, opposed the UN approach.
The negotiations, initiated by the UN, did not achieve any breakthrough until 1996, despite many rounds held regularly in Tehran and Moscow and a short-lived cease-fire which was signed in Tehran on September 7, 1994. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan convinced both Moscow and Tehran that the situation in Tajikistan had to be settled; the Russians were also worried by the increasing military strength of the Tajik opposition in the field. In January 1996, Velayati made it clear to the Tajik opposition that Iran was committed to finding an agreement on Tajikistan, and in the summer of 1996 a Russian change of attitude towards the talks was obvious among their delegation. The replacement of Kozyrev by Primakov, an expert of the Muslim world, as Minister of Foreign Affairs, also played a role. At the same time, the alignments in Afghanistan and Tajikistan ceased to be ideological and became more and more ethnically oriented, to the dismay of Tashkent. After the fall of Kabul in September 1996, Masud established working relations with Rahmanov; Russian ammunitions were stockpiled in the Kulab airfield for Masud. The Tajik opposition in Afghanistan, headed by Mollah Nuri, chose Masud’s side and not the Taliban. Masud worked as a peace broker between Rahmanov and Nuri.
The way was thus paved for a real agreement, which was signed in Moscow on June 27, 1997, after many other rounds. Before that Rafsanjani made his last trip as President of Iran to Dushanbe in April 1997, probably to alleviate Rahmanov’s misgivings about Iran’s role.
Mollah Nuri, who was based in Afghanistan, came back to Dushanbe in September, while Akbar Turajanzade stood in Tehran. Competition between both men complicated the situation, while armed groups acting on their own cast a shadow on the peace process. Finally Turajanzade left Tehran, under Iranian pressure, to join the coalition government as Deputy Prime Minister in April 1998. A letter of understanding on defense cooperation was signed in Tehran on December 29, 1997, the only one between Iran and any former Soviet republic. It is nevertheless clear that Iran is keeping a low profile in Dushanbe.
Iran, as we saw, has adopted from the beginning a cautious policy toward Afghanistan. Iran wants to remain a player through the Shi’a card, but does not contest the dominant role played by both the Pashtun ethnic group and by Pakistan. Iran would like to have a coalition government in Kabul, with a “fair” Shi’a participation. But Iran always looked to have some Pashtun on its side: during the war it played some Pashtun splinter group, and after 1996 Tehran has given a new chance to an already discredited G. Hekmatyar, a radical Pashtun leader and former tool of the Pakistani services (ISI). Pakistan played from 1994 onward another Pashtun card: the conservative Taliban, who are strongly anti-Shi’a. But Tehran did little to prevent the fall of Herat province, on its border with Afghanistan, into the hands of the Taliban (September 1995). An alleged Revolutionary Guards’ foray in Farah to thwart a Taliban offensive in May 1995 was short-lived.
Iran, with Russia, is providing help to the northern coalition and still recognizes the ousted president Rabbani. Iran wants to prevent the fall of the northern coalition, but is doing nothing to bring about the fall of the Taliban, although they expelled the Iranian diplomats from Kabul in June 1997. The Iranian ambassador-at-large, Alaeddin Borujerdi, used to shuttle from one faction to the other, with little success. In fact, Iran is not a big player in the Afghan game and has to recognize the dominant Pakistani role. Iran is supporting the UN effort to bring peace in Afghanistan and is part of the 6+2 group (Afghanistan’s neighbors plus Russia and the United States), the only case where Iranian diplomats, except the UN in New York, sit alongside of U.S. officials.
Iran is also eager to repatriate the 2 million Afghan refugees in its territory and to check drug smuggling on the Afghan border. The raise of the Taliban is seen with concern: in 1998, the Pasdaran were reported building a military air base in Mashhad, close to the Afghan border.
The uneasy relations with Pakistan
Pakistan and Iran officially have good relations, in terms of mutual participation to ECO, regular bilateral high-level meetings, etc. But in fact both appeared as competitors in Central Asia, as far as oil and Islam are concerned. Pakistan played a Sunni fundamentalist Islamic card, of which the Taliban are part, to make a breakthrough in Central Asia and to establish a kind of corridor that would provide an outlet for Central Asian pipelines. The Islamic card backlashed in Central Asia but succeeded in Afghanistan. The UNOCAL gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan should start at the end of 1998, running some hundred kilometers from the Iranian border.
Tensions between Iran and Pakistan were aroused by two issues: Afghanistan and sectarian violence in Pakistan. In January 1997 a Pakistani mob attacked the Iranian cultural center in Lahore. Pakistan is more and more the hotbed of a brand of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism, which is quite different from the Iranian brand and is both anti-Western and anti-Shi’a. A paradoxical effect of this trend is that it might put Iran and the United States on the same side: victims of a new brand of Islamic terrorism, as shown by the killings of both Iranians and Americans in early 1998 in Lahore and Karachi by Sunni extremists. The bombings of two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 by Islamist extremists established in Taliban held areas with close Pakistani connections, and the explosion of a Pakistani nuclear bomb might also be an element of the reassessment of the Islamic threat by Western countries.
Washington, not Moscow, is the key for an Iranian breakthrough in Central Asia: the turning point of 1998
Iran’s policy toward Central Asia has been a rather disappointing one. Iran never matched the United States or even the Turks in terms of economic influence. The U.S. boycott is not the only reason—Tehran has been late to recognize the newly independent states and to acknowledge their strong sense of nationalism. Relations remain very cold with Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan and distant with Kazakhstan. The strongest ties were established with Turkmenistan and Armenia, which were also two close friends of the United States. In fact, one should point out a very interesting discrepancy in the Iranian policy towards Central Asia: one of its avowed targets was to thwart a U.S. breakthrough in Central Asia, while most of Iran’s connections were with pro-U.S. countries. In Afghanistan also, the Iranians are on the same side as the Americans in condemning the Taliban policy and advocating a coalition government.
Iran has relied on an axis with Russia which might be unraveling. Russia’s influence is decreasing in Central Asia to the benefit of the West. Moscow’s leverage is slowly eroding. Russian troops have left Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan; the Russian-speaking population is decreasing and has lost all political and economical leverage in favor of a native elite, which send its children to study in the West and not in St. Petersburg. The Russians are not investing money in Central Asia and rely on out-dated means of pressure, such as closing pipes and cutting energy supplies as in Kazakhstan in October 1996, thus rejecting the republics toward the West. The Central Russian bank has jeopardized the ruble zone in 1993, to the benefit of the dollar. No Russian experts are being employed by Moscow in the south, and no scholarships are given to Central Asian students. The Russian share in trade has fallen considerably—less than 20 percent with Uzbekistan in 1997. Western investments are redirecting trade and communications on an East-West axis and not on a North-South one—the West invested US $1 billion in Azerbaijan for 1997. Moscow is slowly redirecting its policy along Western patterns (Lukoil plays as a multinational, while Russia is acknowledging the division of the Caspian Sea). Iran is left with little influence except with the economic losers of Armenia and Tajikistan. The delinking between Russia and Central Asia goes with the unraveling of the Moscow-Tehran axis.
Even if some republics are eager to have good working relations with Iran, in terms of Turkmenistan, they will not confront Washington on that issue.
The paradox is that an Iranian breakthrough in Central Asia is largely dependent on an improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations, which will waive the Central Asian republics misgivings toward Iran. Such an improvement is not inevitable, but depends on the Iranian domestic situation. One can only underline the “anticipation effect”: all the actors are convinced that such a rapprochement will arrive soon or later and adapt their policy to this expectation. For example, it is clear that the Russians are trying to enter the Caspian game on the new basis of business, not imperialism, which will lessen the Iranian role.
Two events in August 1998 might contribute to change the picture: the Taliban breakthrough in Afghanistan and the U.S. retaliations against the terrorist bases for the bombings of two American embassies in eastern Africa. The fall of the Afghan town of Mazar i Sharif into the hands of the Taliban and the subsequent murders of 10 Iranian diplomats led to an almost direct confrontation between the Iranians and the Taliban: in early September tens of thousands of Iranian Pasdaran gathered on the Afghan border. The Uzbeks are also angered by the Taliban victory, which could lead to a rapprochement between Tehran and Tashkent. The U.S. retaliations against terrorist camps in Taliban held areas on August 20, 1998 have put Iran and the United States on the same side, with the same enemies, although both are eager not to acknowledge the convergence of interests—the Iranians still criticize the “U.S. support for the Taliban,” while Washington warned against an Iranian ground offensive inside Afghan territory. But clearly we are witnessing a general reshuffling of the alliances around Afghanistan. For Uzbekistan, Iran, and the United States, the main danger is now seen as coming from Sunni radical movements based in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which, although supported by Pakistan and until recently Saudi Arabia, put on an almost equal foot the “Crusaders” (the Christians), the “Jews” (Israel), and the “Heretics” (the Shi’as). The canceling of the UNOCAL project in Afghanistan might be a sign of this general reshuffling which will allow Iran to be a full player in Central Asia.
The New Central Asia, or the Fabrication of Nations..., it's more like US PNAC inspired hundreds of Tribes with Flags and Turbans.....in order to Fracture ASIA along Tribal lines...and AFRICA and the Greater Middle East...to be published in 1999/2009/2019....