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Iran: Khatami Tours Central Asia To Press For Iran Energy Routes, Lower U.S. Presence

  • Charles Recknagel

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami goes to Uzbekistan tomorrow as he continues a Central Asian tour that already has taken him to the Caspian Summit in Turkmenistan and to Kazakhstan. As he travels, he is urging Central Asian states to route more of their energy exports through Iran and is accusing the U.S. of seeking a permanent military presence in the region. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at Khatami's trip and how his message is being received by regional leaders.

Prague, 25 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is rounding off his attendance at this week's Caspian Summit in Turkmenistan with a swing through Central Asian states to discuss two issues: energy and the U.S.

Khatami and the leaders of the four other states bordering the Caspian Sea failed to reach an agreement on 22-23 April over how to divide the sea's rich energy deposits. The conclusion of the meeting saw Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan continuing to argue for dividing the sea in proportion to each country's share of its shoreline. But Iran maintained its demand for dividing the seabed into five equal parts, while Turkmenistan refrained from fully committing to either position.

Still, the Caspian talks provided a good boost to Khatami's follow-up trip through the region by ending with calls by all sides for greater regional cooperation in solving the seabed dispute. That accord was summed up by the conference host, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, who said all "five countries pledged to refrain from using force or creating tension in the Caspian Sea so that issues of contention are resolved through mutual understanding."

Now, with the inconclusive Caspian Sea Summit behind him, Khatami is seeking to turn at least some of the apparent regional goodwill into progress on other issues that deeply concern Tehran. And he lost no time in discussing those in detail as soon as he arrived in Almaty from Ashgabat yesterday.

Appearing before the press with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Khatami called for Central Asia to step up exports of its energy through Iran as the shortest route to world markets. At the same time, he sharply criticized progress by the U.S. -- which seeks to isolate Iran -- in developing a military presence in the region for its war on terrorism.

Referring to Washington, Khatami said: "One must not get entrenched on this or that territory, setting up bases under the disguise of an antiterrorist campaign." He added: "This is sheer humiliation for our nations that have the right to resolve their problems on their own and decide themselves what is good and bad for them."

Analysts say Khatami is likely to continue sounding those themes as he continues his tour to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan through this week and into the next. The Iranian president is due in Tajikistan on 30 April before heading back to Tehran.

William Samii, a regional expert at RFE/RL, says Tehran has two principle objectives in Central Asia at the moment.

"Tehran's regional objectives are overlapping. It wants the Central Asian states to ship their oil and gas via Iran to the Persian Gulf, whereas Washington prefers pipelines across the Caspian. Tehran promotes the southern route as the most economically viable and the environmentally safest."

He continues: "Tehran also fears revival of the plan to build a pipeline through Afghanistan, which is what Washington promoted through [the U.S. oil company] UNOCAL in the 1990s. Tehran also believes that it is being encircled by the U.S., which now has forces in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus."

Khatami underlined Tehran's interest in Central Asian energy by calling on Nazarbaev yesterday to support building an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to the Gulf via Iran. That oil pipeline would imitate a gas pipeline from western Turkmenistan to northern Iran that was inaugurated in 1997. Both Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan currently also participate in so-called "oil swap deals" by which Iran imports their oil for domestic use while selling equivalent amounts of Iranian oil to the world market on their behalf.

But even as Tehran seeks greater energy business with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, Washington is putting strong pressure on the same states to bypass Iran in favor of a planned pipeline from Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. That pipeline, which has yet to be built, is expected by some estimates to become operational in 2005. Central Asian states are equally under pressure from Moscow to export their energy via Russia instead.

Analysts say Iran likely faces an uphill battle if it hopes to convince Central Asian leaders to risk antagonizing Moscow and Washington in order to export substantially more energy via Iran. Nazarbaev may have signaled some of his reluctance to do that when he responded to Khatami's suggestion yesterday regarding a Kazakh-Iran oil pipeline. He said that "Kazakhstan is looking for multiple ways to export oil to world markets but is unlikely to need additional pipeline capacity before 2010."

Such hesitations among Central Asian leaders stem from a belief that their energy resources represent their best chances for developing closer ties with Washington -- something that helps strengthen their still recent political independence from Moscow. That could leave limited room for new energy deals with Iran.

Samii: "I sense that Central Asian leaders recognize that deals with the U.S. will have a better financial payoff and they are more likely to bring in development assistance. It is easy to contrast the U.S. and Iran economically and decide which model you would rather emulate."

As Iran seeks to compete with Moscow and the U.S. over pipeline routes, it also is casting a nervous eye at Washington's deals with several Central Asian states to use their territory as a continuing base for operations in Afghanistan.

Washington has stationed troops in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which invited the forces in last year to support the U.S.-led war on terrorism against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Kazakhstan and Tajikistan also gave flight clearance to coalition warplanes.

Now, as operations in Afghanistan mix mop-up campaigns against Taliban guerrillas with massive deliveries of humanitarian aid to that country, there is no sign that the U.S. troops will leave Central Asia soon. And that prospect, combined with the establishment of a U.S.-leaning administration in Kabul, worries Iran that it is increasingly being encircled by Washington.

But analysts say that, despite its nervousness, Iran has little hope of convincing its Central Asian neighbors to unilaterally close the new U.S. bases, which both Washington and the host countries repeatedly say are temporary. One reason is the Central Asian states face militant Islamist opposition groups of their own, which they are counting on the U.S.-led war on terrorism to help weaken.

Samii: "U.S. forces have participated in exercises in Central Asia since the 1990s. And they also provide training to local militaries. Central Asian troops train at U.S. facilities, too. But what is significant here is that authoritarian Central Asian leaders can use the war on terrorism as an excuse to crack down on political dissidents, and not just on terrorists."

The subject of militant Islamist groups could be on the agenda as Khatami holds talks in Uzbekistan tomorrow. Uzbek President Islam Karimov is eager to assure that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has maintained bases in Afghanistan for operations against Tashkent, is denied any other regional sanctuary.

The Uzbek president showed his sensitivity to this subject by recently accusing Pakistan of doing too little to stop IMU fighters from fleeing across its border. Recently, the U.S. daily "The Washington Times" raised the possibility that IMU fighters may also be seeking sanctuary in Iran. The newspaper quoted unidentified U.S. intelligence officials as saying some elements in the Iranian government are sympathetic to both Al-Qaeda and the IMU due to their shared anti-American ideologies.

Tehran has previously denied giving any sanctuary to Al-Qaeda members.

Still, if Iran's arguments for exporting more energy -- and expelling U.S. soldiers -- from Central Asia could prove difficult to endorse for many of the region's leaders, Khatami can expect to return home with several clear gains from his trip. Those will take the form of new bilateral agreements with several of the states, beginning with ones signed in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan earlier this week.

Niyazov and Khatami signed an interstate agreement on cooperation in trade, business, science, and technology in Ashgabat on 23 April, with both leaders calling for stronger economic ties in the future. Trade turnover between the two countries has grown steadily to $430 million last year, compared to just $72 million in 1994.

Iran also signed an intergovernmental protocol on trade and cooperation with Kazakhstan yesterday. Nazarbaev said after the signing that trade turnover between the two countries reached $220 million last year. He also said he is confident Khatami's visit would "give a powerful impetus to bilateral relations."