A recent meeting of officials from Uzbekistan and Iran was a curious event. Central Asia has seen a reshuffling of relations over the past couple years, and improved relations between Tashkent and Tehran is one of the more intriguing developments.
Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov led the Uzbek delegation that also included Foreign Trade Minister Elyor Ganiev and Uzbekneftegaz chief Alisher Sultanov. During their October 16-18 visit, members of the Uzbek delegation met with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh.
Agreements worth some $25 million were signed for agricultural and textile products, but for Uzbekistan the more important talks were on oil imports from Iran.
Zanganeh said on October 18 that Uzbek oil officials were in talks with the National Iranian Oil Company about exporting Iranian oil to Uzbekistan.
Zanganeh did not mention any figures.
Since Shavkat Mirziyoev took over as Uzbekistan’s president last year, Uzbekistan has been moving to alleviate the country’s chronic shortages of oil and gasoline.
Already this year, Mirziyoev has secured agreements for oil imports from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia.
In the case of Kazakhstan and Russia, work must first be done to repair and extend an existing pipeline that connects Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan before any oil can be imported.
"Exports to [Uzbekistan] need to be conducted overland and probably by rail," Zanganeh said.
Such a rail line already exists, so it should not take long for shipments of Iranian oil to start arriving in Uzbekistan after the two countries finalize a deal.
If Uzbek-Iranian relations continue to warm, there is always the possibility that the same railway could one day be used to carry Uzbek goods to Iran and the Persian Gulf.
China would likely back such a plan, as it would integrate well with Beijing’s One Belt, One Road global trade initiative.
It might also breathe some new life into the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran-Oman international trade and transport corridor, a project that was signed in 2011 but which has made little progress since.
For Iran, the timing of the Uzbek delegation’s visit is fortuitous.
Tehran’s ties with Tajikistan, Iran’s natural partner in Central Asia due to the linguistic and cultural affinities they share, have been fraying for many months, in large part due to a vigorous push by Saudi Arabia -- Iran's regional rival -- to court better relations with Tajikistan.
Iranian-Turkmen ties hit a new low recently due to a dispute between the two countries over the price of Turkmen natural-gas exports to northern Iran.
Turkmenistan stopped gas supplies to Iran at the end of 2016, citing Iranian debt, and Iran has mentioned several times since that it is prepared to take Turkmenistan to international arbitration for price gouging and failure to respect contracts.
A new partnership with Uzbekistan would help Iran not only maintain a presence in Central Asia but probably boost Iranian influence in the region since, at 32 million people, Uzbekistan’s population is more than twice the combined populations of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan (8.6 million and 5 million, respectively).
It is admittedly early to predict the course of Iranian-Uzbek relations.
These new ties are again the result of the change in leadership in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan’s longtime president, Islam Karimov, was always worried about Islamist-inspired groups challenging his regime. When Uzbekistan became independent in late 1991, Iran was seen as the Islamic-fundamentalist threat, despite the fact that Iran is mainly Shi’a and most Central Asians, certainly most Uzbeks, are Sunnis.
Karimov shunned Iran even later, when Sunni groups such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the so-called Islamic State extremist group appeared.
But Mirziyoev seems determined to jump-start Uzbekistan’s economy, and Iran presents some attractive trade possibilities.
Given the increasingly complicated security situation in central, south, and western Asia, Uzbekistan and Iran have common security concerns that also provide a basis for new cooperation.