Nicole Grajewski: “Iran has a very Russian-centric view of Central Asia”

People in Central Asia have always watched closely at how Iran approaches the region. But does Iran have any special relationships with Central Asian countries? How does Iran consider Russian’s interests in the region? Nicole Grajewski from the University of Oxford provides her analysis of the Iranian politics in Central Asia. Ms. Grajewski is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford where she researches Russia’s relationship with Iran in the Middle East and Central Asia. Nicole’s doctoral research focuses on the place of Iran within Russian ideas about international order and how Russian and Iranian understandings about international order have evolved, converged, and conflicted over time. She also examines Moscow’s normative convergence with Tehran and the impact of regional military interventions on Russian foreign policy towards Iran through the case studies of the Tajik Civil War, NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia, the Iraq War, and Syria. Prior to Oxford, Nicole worked for the U.S. Department of State, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria programs, and the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis. You can follow her on twitter @nicolegrajewski

How would you evaluate current relationships between Iran and Central Asian countries in general? Do we observe close political friendship like it was between Ahmadinejad and Rahmon? Does Iran plan any big economic projects in the region?

Iran’s foreign policy towards Central Asia has broadly focused on cultivating diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties with the region, however, it is still difficult to generalize Iran’s relations with Central Asia as a whole. Until recently, Tajikistan was considered one of Iran’s closest relationships in Central Asia due to the shared linguistic, cultural, and historical ties between the two countries. Throughout the 2000s, Iran pursued multiple economic and infrastructural projects such as the Sangtudeh-2 hydroelectric power plant and the Esteqlal Tunnel. This was partly due to Ahmadinejad’s close relationship with Rahmon, but I also think that the wider ostracism of Iran in the international community and the controversy surrounding nuclear program forced Tehran to focus on its regional relations. Since around 2015, however, relations between Dushanbe and Tehran have been characterized by increasing acrimony, which appears to have been initially provoked by the arrest of Babak Zanjani and further exacerbated by Muhiddin Kabiri’s visit to Tehran in December 2015.

Unlike Tajikistan where Iran has frequently stressed shared cultural-linguistic affinities, the nature of the Iran-Turkmenistan relationship has primarily been driven by geo-economics, especially pertaining to energy, transportation, and industrial cooperation. Despite outstanding disputes over the purchase of natural gas, Tehran’s relationship with Ashgabat has been one of Iran’s most important bilateral partnerships in the region. Previously, Iran’s lack of domestic pipeline capacity in its northeast has necessitated gas imports from Turkmenistan during the winter, however, since January 2017 the gas imports from Turkmenistan have stopped due to disagreements surrounding payments and the quality of gas. Against the backdrop of increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran, Foreign Minister Zarif’s recent visit to Ashgabat in mid-May appeared as not only an attempt to strengthen regional economic ties amidst international isolation but also to affirm the importance Tehran attaches to positive relations with Turkmenistan and its stated policy of neutrality.

Under Islam Karimov, Iran’s relationship with Uzbekistan was probably the worst out of all the Central Asian states.
Under Islam Karimov, Iran’s relationship with Uzbekistan was probably the worst out of all the Central Asian states. Since Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed office, there has been a noticeable, though measured, improvement in bilateral relations between the two countries. There have been discussions about the possibility of exporting Iranian oil via rail to Uzbekistan, which would help alleviate the country’s chronic oil and gas shortages. Recently, Uzbekistan has been trying to carve out its own niche by acting as a mediator in Afghanistan. Iran is obviously extremely important for any durable peace-agreement in Afghanistan and I think in the foreseeable future, we might see some more discussions on security issues between the two countries.

Iran and Kazakhstan have generally had positive relations though not without tensions. During the Ahmadinejad Administration, former President Nazarbayev expressed his frustration over Iran’s reluctance to engage in nuclear negotiations. Non-proliferation is a long-held normative view promoted by the Kazakh leadership who often emphasize the country’s own history as a success story for nuclear non-proliferation to gain international prestige and recognition. This partly explains why nuclear talks between Iran and the E3+3 were held in Almaty in February 2013.  Beyond the nuclear issue, Kazakhstan and Iran share a maritime border in the Caspian Sea and have recently held a series of high-level talks about the expansion of economic relations between the two countries.

Like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan’s relationship with Iran has been overall quite positive, albeit underdeveloped, despite the fact that the two countries have long sought to develop trade relations. The trade turnover between Iran and Kyrgyzstan is much lower in comparison to that of China, Russia, or, even, Turkey. In May 2018, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) signed an interim agreement that would lead to the establishment of a free-trade zone between Iran and the EAEU. This could potentially facilitate trade between Iran and EAEU members including Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Of course, whether or not this comes to fruition is also linked to the ability of the EAEU to overcome many of the extant challenges to its functionality as an economic union.

What drives Central Asian countries to cooperate and trade with Iran, especially in the light of Trump’s recent pressures on Iran and a necessity to keep good relationships between Central Asians and the US?

The Central Asian states remain heavily reliant on land-based transportation and, as a result, cooperation with Iran on the development of international transit corridors connecting the region to the Iranian seaports Bandar Abbas or Chabahar is an important incentive to maintain cordial relations. There are several railways that already connect Central Asia to the Persian Gulf via Iran but the development of new modes of connectivity has been primarily advanced by externally led projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative or the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC). The Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the imposition of sanctions on Iran puts the Central Asian states in a difficult position. On the one hand, the development of regional trade and transportation between Iran and the Central Asian states would be beneficial to regional connectivity and integration. On the other hand, the Central Asian states generally eschew foreign policies that are overtly anti-U.S. despite their measured criticism of Washington’s promotion of its external democratization agenda in the region. Sanctions also complicate financial transactions for states like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or Uzbekistan who have almost non-existent banking relations with Iran. This was part of the reason why Kazakhstan’s largest steel-manufacturing joint-stock company suspended its supply of hot-rolled steel coils to Iran following the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions.

What role does Russia play in the relationships between Iran and Central Asian countries? There is no known joint Russian-Iranian project at a political or economic or social level in the region, except maybe regional cooperation in the Caspian Sea and under the SCO.

Iran has a very Russian-centric view of Central Asia, which elicits the implicit recognition of Moscow’s special interests in the region from Iran.
Iran has a very Russian-centric view of Central Asia, which elicits the implicit recognition of Moscow’s special interests in the region from Iran. In this sense, Russia has not really needed to interfere in Iran’s relations with the Central Asian states. Russia is quite aware of Iran’s limitations in the region and Tehran seems equally aware of how its conduct in Central Asia could be potentially detrimental to its relations with Moscow. In the Caspian Sea, both Russia and Iran have held a similar normative view against the presence of extra-regional naval powers which was included in Article 3 of the recent agreement between the Caspian littoral powers. Both countries have also opposed the construction of the Trans-Caspian Pipeline. Outside of the Caspian Sea region, Iran and Russia have discussed joint plans to combat terrorism and drug trafficking in Central Asia.

Iran and Russia have also been rather active in seeking a solution for Afghanistan. Previously, Iran – along with Russia and the Central Asian states – supported the Northern Alliance. In the current context, Iran might again emerge as a cooperation partner against the Islamic State or, perhaps, support the Russian initiative for graduated engagement with the Taliban through dialogue. In December 2018, a month after the Moscow format negotiations, Iran hosted talks between the Taliban. As these talks were called shortly after the announcement U.S. withdrawal, the Tehran talks were viewed in Russia as a sign that Iran was assuming greater responsibility in stabilizing Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal. At the June 2018 SCO summit in Qingdao, Iran’s efforts to improve relations with Afghan President Ghani were also seen as positive for Russian interests. Relations between the Kremlin and the Afghan government have soured in recent months over Russia’s engagement with Afghan opposition figures which offers an opportunity for Tehran to support Moscow’s policy in Afghanistan through its outreach to Ghani. In terms of economics, Russia, Iran, and India are the founding states of the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC) which also includes several Central Asian states. The INSTC could serve as an alternative form of connectivity from the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative in addition to facilitating Iran’s access to foreign markets. 

As we are talking about regional organizations – will Iran be accepted to the SCO? 

Iran first applied for the status of an SCO observer state in 2004 under the Khatami Administration – one year later, it attended the 2005 Astana Summit as an observer state alongside India and Pakistan. Under Ahmadinejad, the SCO was seen as an integral extension of the so-called “Look East” policy. However, his controversial foreign policy rhetoric prompted legitimate concerns from the Central Asian states and China in particular that Iran’s membership would turn the Organization into a purely anti-Western bloc. Iran was hopeful that membership would be an option during Russia’s presidency of the SCO in 2009. This did not come to fruition partly because the Yekaterinburg Summit occurred against the backdrop of the international condemnation surrounding the Green Movement, but also because the increasing controversy over Iran’s nuclear program further complicated Tehran’s prospects of full membership. In 2010, the SCO introduced a new criterion for membership which explicitly stated that an aspiring member state should not be under UNSC sanctions. This stipulation was quite evidently directed towards Iran.

In the aftermath of the 2015 JCPOA agreement, there was hope that Iran would be in line for full membership. However, at the 2016 Tashkent Summit, the issue of membership was not even discussed and there were reports in the Iranian press that Foreign Minister Zarif left the summit in protest. Later, it was revealed that Tajikistan was the main state objecting to Iranian membership over opposition figure Muhiddin Kabiri’s visit to Tehran in 2015 and the scandal over Babak Zanjani’s financial assets following his arrest in 2013. It was also believed that Russia was more enthusiastic than China about Iran’s SCO entry at this time because Beijing feared Iran’s inclusion would give the SCO an unambiguously anti-Western character. Ultimately though, Russia’s primary focus was ensuring that India entered at the same time as Pakistan.

Additionally, there were concerns that Delhi’s opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative and its aversion to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s approach to border security would cause China to impede India’s inclusion in the Organization. Since the 2017 Astana Summit, the official accession of India and Pakistan as member states has posed significant challenges to the cohesion of the SCO’s commitment to the ‘three evils,’ such as the mutual recognition of terrorist, extremist, and separatist groups under RATS. Despite the challenges to the SCO, I think Iran still sees the Organization as an important source of solidarity and normative bonding with like-minded states. This was quite evident with Rouhani’s attendance and participation at the 2018 Qingdao Summit. Iran will most likely be the next state to gain full membership but that could be anywhere from 5 to 15 years from now.

Can we call Iran a regional power, which pushes and protects its interests in the region? Does Iran have any interest in domestic politics in the Central Asian region, like it does have for example in the Middle East?

No, I do not think Iran has actively sought to interfere in the internal affairs of the Central Asian states. I know Tajikistan has made accusations about Iran’s interference in its internal affairs. However, accusations about Iran’s nefarious motives in Central Asia as well as the historical revisionism on behalf of the Tajik government appears to be linked more to the downturn in Iran-Tajikistan relations and the growing influence of Saudi Arabia than to actual Iranian interference. In Central Asia, Iran has consistently stressed non-interference and a state-centric approach to sovereignty which broadly mirrors the language found in the SCO declarations or in Russian and Chinese foreign policy statements. Despite Iran’s tense relations with Karimov, Tehran specifically described the Uzbek government’s violent repression in Andijan as an internal affair. This was also the case during the Tulip Revolution and the 2010 unrest in Kyrgyzstan. The emphasis on non-interference may express a particular normative view that Iran has applied towards the region, but I think it also reflects the country’s aversion to the presence or influence of hostile external powers in the region. Moreover, for the Central Asian states and Iran, the emphasis on non-interference and sovereignty also helps bolster regime survival amidst international condemnation.

Iran’s foreign policy in Central Asia is quite different from the Middle East. In the hierarchy of Iranian foreign policy priorities, Central Asia is clearly in a subordinate position to that of the Middle East. The primary source of insecurity for Iran emanates from the Persian Gulf whereas Central Asia, with the exception of Afghanistan, has remained relatively stable since the late 1990s. The presence of U.S. troops in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were a concern for Iran – Tehran has linked the presence of foreign troops to the spread of terrorism and instability in the region, though this seems like less of a concern today. Moreover, the influence of Russia and China in the region has constrained Iran in the sense that they are unable, perhaps even unwilling, to compete with either Moscow or Beijing in Central Asia. Since Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, Rouhani has mentioned the idea of using Iran’s status as a regional power to establish strong ties with Russia, India, and China in Eurasia and to offer a link by connecting the countries through security and energy cooperation. This seems unlikely but it will still be interesting to see if this comes to fruition. 

Iran is a Shia Muslim country and officially is the Islamic Republic. Does this fact repulse the Central Asian secular and somewhat Islamophobic authorities?

The majority of Central Asians belong to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, which limits the appeal of Shia ideology in the region. During the 1990s, Islam Karimov, in particular, would often express his opposition to an Islamic-theocratic government like Iran being transplanted onto Central Asia. This was partly to justify Uzbekistan’s territorial incursions into neighboring states but also to curry favor with Ankara and Washington, less so about the spread of an Iranian-type government in the region. The Central Asian leaderships have also demonstrated a proclivity to suppress Islamic opposition and to securitize Islam for the sake of regime survival. Iran has no illusions about the state of Islam in Central Asia, yet Tehran has generally refrained from interfering in the internal affairs within the region and has eschewed a foreign policy driven by the ‘export of revolution’ (sodur-e enqelab). 

What role did Iran play in the civil war in Tajikistan? And in reaching the peace accord? 

The Iraq War actually resulted in Tehran’s pursuit of a pragmatic foreign policy towards Central Asia, which was primarily driven by the need to reduce its international isolation. In the 1990s, Iran’s regional policy focused on the cultivation of new relations with Central Asia as well as engagement in multilateral forums such as the Economic Cooperation Organization which includes all five Central Asian states. For example, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati visited all the Central Asian republics in November 1991 and throughout 1991-1992, the presidents of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan visited Tehran. Even though Tajikistan does not border Iran, by virtue of its linguistic and cultural affinities, Dushanbe was seen as a natural regional partner for Tehran. Prior to the Civil War, Iran was already establishing cultural and economic ties with Tajikistan – in fact, during the height of hostilities, President Nabiev visited Iran in June 1992. Of course, there are several credible reports that suggest that Tehran gave verbal, and by some accounts also material, support to the Islamic opposition in Tajikistan during the initial years of the Tajik Civil War. However, the outbreak of the Tajik Civil War was by no means the result of Iranian involvement. Tehran did have a relationship with Sayid Abdullo Nuri, but Iran also played an instrumental role in pressuring the opposition to engage in U.N. peace-talks with the Tajik government.

Did Iran coordinate its actions in the 90s in Tajikistan with Russia, which was an active part of both war and peace negotiations?

In the summer of 1993, an attack that killed around 30 Russian border guards along the Tajik-Afghan border provided Moscow with the impetus to cooperate with Iran in initiating U.N.-sponsored negotiations. The instability in neighboring Afghanistan including the threats to border security and refugee flows was a significant factor in motivating joint mediation for both Russia and Iran. Following the attack on the Russian border post, there was a concerted effort on behalf of Moscow to engage with Iran. In Yevgeny Primakov’s memoir, Gody v bols’hoi politike, he discusses his visit to Tehran in autumn 1993 during which he proposed Russian and Iranian cooperation with Tajikistan. Several months later, in April 1994, Russia with the support of Iran as third-party mediators succeeded in pressuring the Tajik government and the opposition to partake in negotiations under the auspices of the U.N. and by September 1994 the parties agreed upon the terms of a ceasefire in Tehran. Disagreements regarding the implementation of the ceasefire caused negotiations to reach an impasse for most of 1995. However, following the Taliban’s advancement towards Kabul in 1996, the regional context prompted a sense of urgency and signaled the imperative of reaching a permanent peace agreement in Moscow and Tehran. The increase of Russian and Iranian pressure on the warring parties culminated in the December 1996 political agreement, which stipulated the opposition’s inclusion in the government and led to the 1997 General Peace Agreement.

Tajikistan and Iran have recently appointed former MFA deputies as ambassadors. Does it mean countries want to get out of the current cold era? 

Yes, I think that the appointment of new ambassadors with the rank of deputy foreign minister indicates the importance of improving Iran-Tajikistan relations for both Dushanbe and Tehran. In March 2019, Tehran appointed Mohammad-Taqi Saberi, who served in the past also as a Deputy Foreign Minister for Administrative and Financial Affairs, as its new ambassador to Tajikistan. Shortly after his appointment, Ambassador Saberi met with Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani during which they both stressed the necessity of improving relations with Tajikistan. One month later, Dushanbe appointed former First Deputy Foreign Minister Nizomiddin Zohidi as ambassador to Tehran. Though this is clearly symbolically important, there are still outstanding issues pertaining to the outlawed Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. Furthermore, the growing Saudi influence in Tajikistan is quite problematic for Iran. The new appointments are fairly recent, and, at present, there have not been any real developments to assess whether or not this has been effective. Iranian and Tajik official will most likely meet at the upcoming summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia in Dushanbe in June. It will be interesting to see an indication of improved relations within the next few months.

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