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View the documentIranian strategies in Central Asia

Iranian strategies in Central Asia

Modjtaba Sadria

In my discussion, I do not use the term "Central Asian republics" as it is usually used in the strict geographical meaning; I include Azerbaijan as a Central Asian republic.

With all its ups and downs, one can divide the interaction between Iran and Central Asia in the modern era into three periods.

The first period began in the second half of the nineteenth century and continued until the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the founding of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran. In this period, the Russian state was continuously expanding its influence in Central Asia, while the inclusion of Iran in the power politics of European powers, including Russia, sometimes went as far as the partition of Iran itself.

During this period, one can say that Iran was acting primarily on a defensive basis, and it did not have many grandiose designs on Central Asia.

The second period began with the Soviet Union's integration into its territory of the whole of Central Asia, sealing off its borders. At that time Iran was entering into a process of modernization in which the creation of a centralized bureaucracy and a national identity occurred in parallel with the weakening of the autonomy of ethnic identities in Iran (i.e. Azeris and Turkmens). During this period of the Pahlavi dynasty, Iran was integrated into the world system mainly as part of first British and then American strategies of containment of the Soviet Union. This essentially sealed off its borders with the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union. With a few nuances, Iranian attitudes toward the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union were the same as Iranian attitudes toward the Soviet Union in general. The fear of the rapid growth of military capabilities of the Soviet Union after World War II was another factor that accounted for the absence of cross-border contacts. In this second period, Iran did not have its own Central Asian strategy, although it sometimes had its own Soviet policy. Basically, its position and its role were determined through its integration into the Western political and military strategies regarding the Soviet Union.

The third period started with the foundation of the Islamic republic in Iran. In a simplified way, one can further divide relations between Iran and Central Asia since the birth of the Islamic republic into two periods. The first period was from 1979 to 1988, during which the new republic was confronted with the task of developing the institutions it dealt with in the Iran-Iraq war which, one can argue, had contradictory impacts on the new republic. On the one hand, a long and costly eight-year war accelerated, according to some points of view, the creation and consolidation of new institutions for the Islamic republic. On the other hand, besides its rhetoric, the war had very pragmatic managerial requirements. Ideologies and beliefs can influence the way that these managerial and pragmatic tasks are viewed but cannot replace them. Fighting the war brought to the attention of the new leaders in a more urgent way the necessity of taking into consideration the daily tasks of the state while deepening their awareness of world-scale power relationships as well as geo-strategic considerations.

Fighting the war under multilateral pressures from Western powers, and with access to limited resources, taught the leaders of the Islamic republic to give much more weight to the importance of South-South trade relations. One could say that this element was under consideration by some of the Islamic republic's planners, but the realities of the war and the context in which it was being carried out gave the new state a more realistic view of international relations. Besides the acceptance in principle of the necessity of strengthening South-South relations, there was a practical need to find whatever would make for broader interaction. One can say, paradoxically, that the war with Iraq activated a process of understanding the capacities that Southern countries can optimize in South-South relationships. By the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Gorbachev's perestroika was already in crisis. Very soon thereafter, the disintegration of the Soviet Union took place. For the first time in the modern era, an independent Iranian state found itself with political, economic, and cultural options toward the Central Asian republics, which had become politically independent entities both unexpectedly and rapidly.

It is necessary to analyse Iran's misunderstandings and wrong political choices since 1989 in relation to the Central Asian republics. What seems to be more important, though, is not only identifying those wrong political choices, but rather to see the growing trends coming out of Iran. These growing trends can be characterized as follows: consciousness by Iranian decision makers of the complexities of the reality in the Central Asian republics - their approach has become much more nuanced, and much more tempered; consciousness that the outcome of political processes in the Central Asian republics is primarily the result of the activities of political forces within those countries; awareness that the Iranian state must interact primarily with its counterparts, i.e. each state in Central Asia, and that these interactions can last only if mutual benefits derive from them (part of which involves Iran playing a stabilizing role); recognition that the quality of the bilateral relations with each of the republics will create the foundation of Iran's interactions with the whole of Central Asia; acknowledgement that the Iranian presence in Central Asia does not have to be exclusive - other countries with historical relations and affinities towards Central Asia can be present along with Iran. The Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), which brings together Turkey and Pakistan with Iran for broader regional interactions with the Central Asian republics, is the result from the Iranian perspective of the synthesis of these points.

But Iran, like Turkey, has other frameworks besides the ECO for interaction with the Central Asian republics. The border between Iran and Turkmenistan and the border between Iran and Azerbaijan create the basis for bilateral relations. As important is the fact that countries bordering the Caspian Sea share a natural geographical framework for interactions between Iran and most of the Central Asian republics. Awareness of the massive presence of Russia in the Caspian Sea region constitutes another aspect of Iranian strategies. The accumulated effects of these diversified, but complementary, strategies lead the observer to notice that the growing trend of Iranian strategies towards Central Asia lies increasingly in activating South-South relations among states that face more or less the same kinds of political, economic, and social challenges.