President Akaev was in Iran in 2003 (file photo)
The Iranian Foreign Ministry reacted cautiously when asked about the recent ouster of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, who fled from Bishkek following the storming of government offices by protesters. Spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said Iran is monitoring developments and added, "We hope conditions in Kyrgyzstan will return to normal as soon as possible," IRNA reported on 26 March.
Tehran has worked hard in recent years to strengthen its relationship with the Akaev government, but the Iranian government cannot be expected to openly protest the democratic aspirations of the Kyrgyz people. Nevertheless, some Iranian officials have attributed the events in the Central Asian republic to the United States, which reflects their concern about the large U.S. presence in the region.
Commercial relations between Iran and Kyrgyzstan -- which has a population of 5 million -- are insignificant. The Central Asian state mainly exports agricultural goods (cotton, wool, meat, tobacco), minerals (gold, mercury, uranium), energy (natural gas, hydropower), and manufactured goods (machinery, shoes) to the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Canada, and China. Kyrgyzstan imports oil, gas, chemicals, food, and manufactured goods, mostly from Russia, Kazakhstan, China, the United States, Uzbekistan, and Germany.
However, Tehran is eager to become a larger trading partner and a number of official delegations have exchanged visits recently.
Iranian First Vice President Mohammad-Reza Aref-Yazdi, Commerce Minister Mohammad Shariatmadari, and Health Minister Masud Pezeshkian met with Akaev and other officials in Bishkek in October 2004. At this time the two sides signed four memoranda of understanding on health, electricity transmission, and trade. Shariatmadari led another delegation to Kyrgyzstan in May 2004.
Significantly, Akaev's December 2003 visit to Iran yielded an Iranian government allocation of $10 million for investment in the Kyrgyz economy (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 5 January 2004). The two sides signed seven memoranda of understanding -- on trade, tariffs, and trade centers; visa regulations; legal affairs; cultural and artistic cooperation; and housing and urban development. Akaev met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, then-Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran is demonstrating every day growing interest in developing and expanding its relations with Kyrgyzstan, in particular in the economy," Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aytamov said on 26 December 2003, Kyrgyzinfo reported.
The two countries also interact in multilateral fora. Both Kyrgyzstan and Iran are members of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), and Khatami and Akaev met on the sidelines of the September 2004 ECO summit in Dushanbe. Foreign Minister Kharrazi visited Kyrgyzstan in June 2003 to participate in a meeting of ECO foreign ministers.
Although the Iranian foreign ministry was restrained in its reaction to developments in Kyrgyzstan, the country's leaders have expressed a great deal of concern about the expanding U.S. presence in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Persian Gulf. Some official comments, therefore, reflect this concern.
Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani saw Kyrgyz events in the context of what is taking place in Lebanon and Iraq. He said during his Friday Prayers sermon on 25 March, which was broadcast by state radio. "You can see what America's mischief is doing in Lebanon. A country that was managing itself competently is now in crisis. You can see what they have done in Kyrgyzstan. You can see how they are toying with the people of Iraq." Hashemi-Rafsanjani continued: "We are faced with a creeping move designed by America aimed at dominating other countries and plundering their natural resources. We hope to repel America's evil intentions by relying on God and the revolution, holding fast to the covenant of God, which is Koran, and vigilance."
A 25 March Iranian state television commentary said events in Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia show that these countries are "the focus of foreign powers' attention." Western and particularly American interference is responsible for events in Kyrgyzstan, it claimed. The commentary claimed some 50 nongovernmental organizations that were established in Kyrgyzstan recently "played a fundamental role in the crisis." It said the U.S. wants friendly governments in these countries because they possess energy resources, uranium, and nuclear technology.
Iranian state television also played the religion card, albeit inaccurately. It is "noteworthy," according to the commentary, that "such developments have occurred in countries [in which] the majority of the inhabitants are Muslims, which clearly shows the process of the expansionist and hegemonic policies of America." Islam is the majority faith in Kyrgyzstan (Muslim 75 percent, Russian Orthodox 20 percent, other 5 percent), but not in Moldova (Eastern Orthodox 98 percent), Ukraine (mainly Ukrainian Orthodox), or Georgia (Georgian Orthodox 65 percent, Muslim 11 percent, Russian Orthodox 10 percent, Armenian Apostolic 8 percent, unknown 6 percent).
The situation in Bishkek has calmed down since last week. During the current Noruz holidays in Iran, furthermore, most politicians are on vacation and newspapers are not being published. Unless the emerging Kyrgyz government makes some blatantly anti-Iranian comments or takes actions that seem hostile, it is likely that the two countries' relations will continue along the same path.