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Central Asia: Iran, Turkey Struggle To Influence Region

A mosque in Tajikistan (RFE/RL) Turkey and Iran have been gradually expanding their ties with Central Asian countries since the early 1990s through economic, cultural, and also security contacts. But despite their interest -- as well as cultural ties and geographical proximity -- the two countries have not been able to achieve a strong influence in the region. We look at the roles of Iran and Turkey in this fifth and last part of our series on the battle for Central Asia.

Prague, 25 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent states in Central Asia provided Turkey and Iran with an opportunity to explore new political and economic roles in the region.

And both countries seemed uniquely well-placed to forge closer ties with the Central Asian republics.

Turkey shares ethnic and linguistic ties with the Turkic states of Central Asia. The Islamic Republic of Iran shares a common language with Tajikistan and a border with Turkmenistan. It also shares the same religion, Islam, with all the states though, unlike them, it practices Shi’ite rather than Sunni Islam.

At the start of the period of independence there was an expectation that the five Central Asian republics would either follow the Turkish model of a secular Muslim state or the Iranian model of an Islamic republic..

There was also concern that Iran would try to covertly or overtly export its Islamic Revolution to Central Asia. But Tehran followed a pragmatic policy in its ties with Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan instead.

And it soon emerged that the Central Asian states would not follow either the Turkish or the Iranian style of government.

Neither One Nor The Other

"The Central Asians weren’t wanting to adopt another country’s model and they weren’t wanting to negotiate or mediate their relations with the international community through Iran or Turkey. They wanted to shape their own identities and future and they wanted to make their own direct contact with the international community and that has been very much the pattern," Edmund Herzig, an expert on Iran and Central Asia at Chatham House in London and a senior lecturer of Persian studies at the University of Manchester, told RFE/RL.

Since then Iran and Turkey have continued their relations with the Central Asian republics in the economic, political, and cultural spheres. But their influence in the region remains limited due to several factors.

Iran and Turkey both have limited resources to expend in Central Asia and are hampered by foreign-policy priorities elsewhere, according to Svante Cornell, the research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program at Uppsala University in Sweden.

"Turkey has its main priority to complete its EU application and negotiations now as of this week and for the foreseeable future that’s going to be Turkey’s main foreign-policy priority aside from that it has Iraq and Cyprus to deal with and for Iran its focus has always [been] mainly on the [Persian] Gulf region and its relation with other Gulf countries," he said. "So, for that reason, they simply haven’t had the resources and the political attention needed to really focus strongly and in a coherent way on the Central Asian region, whereas larger and more resourceful states such as Russia, China, and the United States have been able to do so."

Observers say that in recent years Turkey has to a large extent downscaled its ambitions in the region. Yet it remains active through small businesses and also in the private education sphere.

Iran's Influence Restrained

Iran has been expanding its ties mainly with Turkmenistan but also with Tajikistan. Trade has increased between the countries and Tehran has heavily invested in Tajikistan’s transport and communication infrastructure.

Iranian officials have on many occasions expressed their will to further strengthen relations with Central Asian states. On 23 September, Iran’s Ambassador to Kazakhstan Ramin Mehmanparast announced his government's readiness to participate in joint investment projects in Kazakhstan in various areas, including transportation and the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries.

However, Turaj Atabaki, professor of Iranian and Central Asian studies at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, told RFE/RL that the U.S. presence in the region is a major barrier against the further expansion of Iranian ties with the five Central Asian republics .

"The U.S. does not accept under any conditions the expanding of ties between the Central Asian republics and the Islamic Republic of Iran," Atabaki said. "So a future growing Iranian influence in the region will depend on the country’s relationship with the U.S. If Iran is willing to secure a stable place for itself in the region, first it should resolve its problems with the U.S."

Herzig also believes that Iran and Turkey will not be major players in the Central Asian region in the future. "I don’t think they will have lot of influence in the traditional sense of being able to influence the policy or being able to put pressure on Central Asian states," he said. "I don’t think either Iran or Turkey has the resources or the position to be able to do that. I think what we will see and are seeing is that incrementally the level of relations including commercial and economic relations, social and cultural relations will increase. The Central Asian states were for many decades cut off from their historic and natural contacts with the countries to the west, south, and east as part of the Soviet Union and gradually those contacts are being reestablished."

Herzig added that the process is bound to continue.

Read the other parts in the "Battle For Central Asia" series:

Oil, Diplomacy, And Military Might

China-Russia Bloc Challenges U.S. In Region

Russia And U.S. Often At Odds In Region

China Brings Electronics, But Not Democracy

Battle For Central Asia

Battle For Central Asia

To view a slideshow on competing U.S., Russian, and Chinese interests in Central Asia, click on the image above.

Click on the image to see RFE/RL's dedicated webpage bringing together all of our coverage of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.