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Central Asia/Caucasus: Iran Builds Regional Bridges

  • Stuart Parrott



London, 10 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - A leading analyst of Iranian affairs says Teheran has made little attempt to export revolution to its neighbors in Central Asia and the Caucasus, but has tried to promote stability, cooperation and the resolution of conflict.

Dr Edmund Herzig, a research fellow at Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs, said: "With partial and only short-lived exceptions, the propagation of radical Islam and the export of revolution have had little or no place in official Iranian policy." He added: "Indeed, Iran has been criticised internally and externally for its ideological passivity and failure to support Central Asian, Caucasian and Russian political radicals."

Herzig said Iran briefly offered support to the Islamic opposition in Tajikistan in 1992-93, and governments in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan both accused Iran of supporting radical Islamic political groups. But any such efforts were a "sideshow to the main foreign policy effort."

Herzig spoke last week at a London conference, "Iran: Looking East or West?" which focused on Iran's geopolitical role into the 21st century.

"Regional cooperation has been a key concept, perhaps the defining buzzword, in Iran's policy toward Central Asia," he said. Iran's policy "on the whole" has been to try to promote stability and cooperation in the Central Asian region, and to attempt to play a constructive and positive role in conflict resolution, he said.

He said Iran's good relations with its neighbors to the north, east and northeast -- Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan -- are in marked contrast with relations with its southern Persian Gulf neighbors, characterised by isolation and confrontation. He said Iranian foreign policy has been dictated, since the 1991 break up of the Soviet Union, by a fear that the U.S. might gain a powerful voice in Central Asia, either directly, or through what Teheran sees as U.S. proxies in the region, Turkey and Israel.

Iran and the U.S. remain at loggerheads with Washington refusing to lift sanctions, charging that Teheran supports international terrorism and is pursuing weapons of mass destruction. In turn, Iran charges that the U.S. sanctions are illegal under international law.

Herzig said Teheran is anxious about investment by Western firms, especially U.S. companies, in the Central Asian region, and also by the development of economic and political relations with the West, especially if there is any security dimension. He noted that Teheran strongly opposed a U.S. proposal to help the Kazakhs set up a Caspian Sea naval flotilla, as well as the NATO exercises held in Central Asia in September with U.S. participation.

In response to what Teheran sees as a new geopolitical threat, Herzig said Teheran has been trying to dissuade the Central Asian and Caucasus countries from "rushing headlong into the arms of the West -- to try to persuade them of Iran's good neighborly intentions." He said Teheran also wants to see Russia play a powerful, if not dominant, role in the region to prevent what an Iranian foreign policy insider called "the ambitions of foreign powers in the region." Iran also sees a strong and continuing role for Russia in military security, seeing it as the best guarantor of the region's stability.

Anxiety about Western intentions is not the only element dictating Iranian foreign policy. Herzig said the break-up of the Soviet Union convinced Teheran that it faced "serious security threats," because conflict and instability in Central Asia and the Caucasus could potentially threaten Iran's own security, unity and territorial integrity. The danger was reinforced during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, when refugees fled into Iran.

Herzig said in the Central Asian and Caucasus region "Iran has sided with the principles of territorial integrity, non-intervention in other states' internal affairs, and preached the virtue of tolerance and cooperation in extremist, nationalist and separatist conflicts." An example: its role in seeking a settlement to the civil war in Tajikistan.

Iran's policy is dictated also by economic interests. Its economic problems, including one-million young people coming on the job market each year, and its desire to develop non-oil exports, have made the search for new markets a priority.

"The northern neighbors, cut off as they are from the world economy, seem to offer good potential," said Herzog.

Iran is favorably located as a transit route for the landlocked Central Asian countries since it offers access to the Persian Gulf, and hence potentially to world markets, via its roads and ports. Herzig says Iran also hopes to promote and invest directly in mutually beneficial economic projects in Central Asia and the Caucasus - especially in oil-and-gas exploration.

Herzig said Iran now plays a significant role in the external trade relations of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan; it is constructing a pipeline linking up with Turkmenistan; and has reached an energy swap deal with Kazakhstan. He said there is considerable enthusiasm among the Central Asians "in Iran's potential as an industrial partner." However, as an economic partner, Iran is severely constrained because of the difficulties it faces in raising international finance.

Herzig said the Iranian foreign policy establishment is "working to develop a new set of revolutionary principles that are more appropriate to today's realities." Herzig said Iranian officials continually emphasize the benefits of regional cooperation in promoting economic growth, safeguarding common interests and preventing external domination. He said the two clear examples of regionalism in Iranian policy were the 1992 expansion of the Economic Cooperation Organisation, an attempt to build a form of Common Market, largely at the initiative of the Teheran government; and the proposal, which so far has got nowhere, for a Caspian Sea Cooperation Organisation."

In conclusion, Herzig said many in Central Asia and the Caucasus felt fear and suspicion when Iran embarked on its bid to build bridges. He said, "Subsequently the Central Asian and Caucasus governments, whatever their hesitations or suspicions regarding Iran, have come around, one by one, into believing that at least normal and positive relations with Iran are to their benefit."
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