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Central Asia: Leaders Converge In Tehran

The presidents of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan's Transitional Authority are in Tehran for talks that are expected to culminate in the signing of an agreement on a transport corridor from Uzbekistan to the Persian Gulf.

Prague, 17 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov today flew to Tehran for a two-day official visit. He is expected to meet the Iranian leadership for discussions on bilateral relations and the development of international transport corridors in the region.

This week's visit marks the latest in a string of talks between senior Uzbek and Iranian officials in recent months. Previous discussions focused on prospects for cooperation in the reconstruction of highways and other transport infrastructure in Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Elyor Ganiev, who also chairs the Agency for Foreign Economic Relations, traveled to Tehran to prepare for Karimov's visit. Iran's IRNA news agency cited First Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref as saying: "Iran believes that given a conducive atmosphere, bilateral ties have the potential to become much closer" as a result of the Uzbek president's visit.

The primary purpose of Karimov's current visit, however, appears not to be to try to improve bilateral relations but to give the green light to a new transportation project -- the Rahgozar corridor -- that would give Uzbekistan access to the Persian Gulf. The corridor would run from the gulf through Iran and through western Afghanistan to Herat, on to Termez and up through Dushanbe, and then further north.

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and Afghan Transitional Authority leader Hamid Karzai are also currently in Tehran, and it is anticipated that the four leaders will focus on the creation of the Rahgozar corridor as well as other transport arteries that are part of the international North-South corridor that will eventually link Russia with the Persian Gulf.

The transport agreement, and agreements on cooperation to help rebuild highways and other infrastructure in Afghanistan, stand to benefit all four countries, and are thus based on pragmatic economic interest. Uzbekistan, being a landlocked country, is certainly interested in finding a way to export its products to the closest sea ports.

Alex Vatanka, editor of the London-based "Russia-CIS Security Assessment Binder," part of the Jane's Sentinel group, agrees that the purpose of the meeting is purely pragmatic.

"Essentially what we are looking at are Iran and Uzbekistan with the leadership you have in Tashkent and Tehran. These two countries, these two regimes, are not natural allies. What we have here, through this deal on the road to the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea -- this is pragmatism at its finest," Vatanka says.

Vatanka adds that both countries, with their poor economies, stand to benefit from the arrangement. But he says any agreement on the transport corridor is not likely to signal significant change in overall relations between the two countries. "Any kind of new route is good news essentially, and I think that's what they are doing, but I don't think we should read much into it. I don't think this would involve a major shift in how the Uzbeks view the Iranian Islamic government in Tehran or vice versa. This is pragmatism, and it will not change much in terms of overall bilateral relations," he says.

Uzbek-Iranian relations remain strained in other areas. Tashkent suspects that Tehran may be channeling covert support to underground organizations, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, operating in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states.

Iran, for its part, is concerned by Uzbekistan's unequivocally pro-Western orientation, which has become even more marked in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States. It may be especially worried by Uzbekistan's military cooperation with Washington, especially in the light of reports that some members of the U.S. administration favor military intervention to expedite regime change in Iran.