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Uzbekistan: Are Tashkent And Tehran Seeking Rapprochement?

Uzbek President Islam Karimov is quietly pursuing better relations with Iran (file photo) (AFP) There has been a noticeable change in the Uzbek media's coverage of Iran recently. Since most of the country's media are strictly controlled, freedom of speech is nearly nonexistent and most journalists exercise self-censorship. Media coverage of any issue, particularly those related to international affairs, is done in concert with the government. Positive articles on Iran along with the recent visit of an Iranian delegation to Tashkent may signal a change in the country's foreign-policy orientation.

PRAGUE, 21 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Since gaining independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has been cautious about the possible religious influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran and maintained a rather reserved policy toward Tehran.

Despite the mercurial character of Tashkent's foreign policy toward some countries, particularly the United States and Russia, Uzbekistan's relations with Iran have been relatively steady during the last 15 years.

Media Reflects Changing Policy

However, lately there seems to be a change in the Uzbek state-controlled media's coverage of Iran.

Articles and reports on Iran are more numerous and positive, with most of them expressing support for Tehran's right to develop its nuclear program.

One of the most recent reports came on 14 February. Uzbek state radio's first program aired an extensive interview with an Uzbek political analyst, Ibrohim Normatov. He said Iran has a right to develop its nuclear program. He criticized the United States and the European Union for using double standards and said other countries -- U.S. allies Pakistan and Israel among them -- have nuclear weapons. He likened the position of the United States and the EU toward Iran as similar to the "unfounded" suspicions of Baghdad's possessions of weapons of mass destruction prior to the war in Iraq.

The report is one of many that seem part of a new wave that began appearing on the eve of an Iranian delegation's visit to Tashkent last month. Iranian Commerce Minister Masud Mir-Kazemi discussed bilateral cooperation with Uzbek officials and also visited an aircraft manufacturing plant (TAPOiCh) in Tashkent in late January.

Criticized In Common

Some analysts see it as rapprochement -- saying that both Uzbekistan and Iran feel free to step up their cooperation after Tashkent's relations with the West soured over the Andijon uprising.

Western criticism of the Uzbek government's action in Andijon has negatively affected relations (epa)

Mohammad-Reza Djalili, a professor of international politics at the Graduate Institute of International Studies, spoke to RFE/RL from Geneva. "There is some difficulty in relations between Tashkent and Washington and the Iranians, I think, appreciated this deterioration of relations and they try [now] to develop their relations with this country because before that it was very difficult to develop these relations," he said. "There [was] some hesitation from Uzbekistan, and Iranians were not [willing] to work with the country that was so near the U.S.'s position."

Uzbekistan's relations with the West deteriorated after Tashkent rejected calls from the United States and the EU to conduct an independent international investigation into the Uzbek troops' clash with protesters in Andijon in May. That incident reportedly led to the death of hundreds of civilians and was labeled a "massacre" by New York-based Human Rights Watch. Tashkent then evicted U.S. troops from the Karshi-Khanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan.

The EU imposed an arms embargo on Uzbekistan in October and an entry ban on top Uzbek security officials.

Isolated from the West, Tashkent immediately embraced Russia as the Kremlin actually endorsed the Uzbek government's handling of the uprising. Tashkent and Moscow signed a treaty on "allied relations" in late 2005 and Uzbekistan joined the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Community early this year.

Isolated Iran Seeking More 'Friends'

Analysts say that now that Tashkent has Russia's backing it feels more confident in developing cooperation with Tehran.

Djalili also says that the intention to improve bilateral relations comes not only from Tashkent, but also from Tehran.

Iran is looking for new friends as it risks becoming even more isolated from the West because of its pursuit of a full-fledged nuclear program over the objections of Western capitals.

"It would be imprudent to eliminate all opportunities, to burn bridges with the European Union and America."

"Iran is a very isolated country," Djalili said. "In the Middle East, it has only one friend -- Syria. Syria is in a very difficult position now. And Iran tries to find some contacts, some best possible relations with a few countries. And the possibilities of Iran are limited and they try. If there are possibilities to develop better relations with some Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan, they are going to develop these relations."

Tashkent Hopeful About Relations With West

Kamron Aliev, an independent political analyst from Tashkent, tells RFE/RL that although Uzbek state-controlled media's extensive coverage of Iran may signal a foreign-policy change, Uzbek officials have not made any such announcements.

"Uzbekistan's [government] has not made it clear what position it has on Iran's nuclear program," Aliev said. "Neither was a clear opinion expressed on other Muslim countries' relations with the EU, or recent publications of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and some Muslim countries' reaction to it, or Hamas's recent victory in [Palestinian] elections. Therefore, I conclude Uzbekistan continues its cautious and careful policy."

Aliev says the reason behind the hesitancy in declaring its intentions with Iran is that the Uzbek government has not lost its hope of improving relations with the West.

"At present, it would be imprudent to eliminate all opportunities, to burn bridges with the European Union and America," he said. "Therefore, [official Tashkent] tries to preserve opportunities to restore relations with the EU and the U.S. at any time. I believe Uzbekistan is trying to keep its hands free on the diplomatic front."

Aliev adds that official Tashkent is likely to turn away from Iran and embrace the West at the first beckoning from the United States or the EU.

Uzbekistan's Ambassador To Tajikistan

Uzbekistan's Ambassador To Tajikistan

SHOQOSIM SHOISLOMOV, Uzbek ambassador to Tajikistan, spoke with RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Habibullo Botirov on 14 December in the Tajik capital Dushanbe at a conference called the Forum For The Prevention Of Conflicts In Central Asia.

RFE/RL: Mr. Ambassador, at the opening session of this forum, you gave a speech and said that international organizations do not know the region of Central Asia very well and they often make wrong assessments of events in the region. What can you add to that statement?

Shoislomov: Yes, it is true that the region has many problems. But unfortunately, most employees of international organizations have never lived here. They don't know our life, our traditions, and customs. They don't have a deep knowledge [of the region]. Therefore, in their [reports], they portrait us as underdeveloped and backward. [Although], we can teach them 10 times more than they can teach us. There is such a thing as competency. They lack competency. These shallow opinions of theirs get reflected in some documents. They stigmatize us. Of course, we can never accept the stigma. One should think before putting opinions on paper.

The Central Asian states have 1,000 years of history. We face the hardest task in the war against religious extremism. When [the West] says it fights against religious extremism, they mean Islam. They try to portray our religion, Islam, from an absolutely different perspective in the world. In their opinion, Islam is an extremist religion. They try to say that it is a religion that goes against the West, against the whole world. Unfortunately, people in Western countries may accept these cliche.

RFE/RL: Erbol Shaimardanov, adviser to Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, and some other participants said in their opening statements that Hizb ut-Tahrir has been included in the list of terrorist organizations. However, the organization can operate freely in some countries. How would you comment on this?

Shoislomov: It’s a very correct question. If you want to fight against religious extremism, you should start with Hizb ut-Tahrir. But look at England itself. This summer it became a target of terrorist attacks. Hizb ut-Tahrir has its headquarter in London. [The British government] has given complete freedom to them. How can you understand it? We [the Uzbek government] has offered to everybody to fight against Hizb ut-Tahrir. As you see, many states have made a correct assessment of Hizb ut-Tahrir. But there are some governments, which consider themselves democratic, who gave complete freedom to Hizb ut-Tahrir. How can we treat an organization that comes from those countries and plot terrorist attacks on our territory? It’s difficult to understand this. And they try to blame us for something.

See also:

Hizb Ut-Tahrir Challenges U.K. Government’s Proposed Ban With Offer Of Dialogue

Uzbek Ties With Kyrgyzstan Worsen Amid 'Terror' Accusations

Uzbek Security Service Steps Up Work In Neighboring Countries