Busy Times in Iran-Central Asia RelationsDespite past tensions, the security and economic ties between the two regions have strengthened over the past year.
By Francisco Olmos
June 24, 2022
Visits at the highest level and different cooperation agreements have dominated interactions between Iran and Central Asia this spring. The presidents of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan have all been hosted by Tehran in the last month. Each country sees in Iran a partner in different spheres, from trade and transit corridor to energy importer and security guarantor. Growing ties may open trade routes for the region toward the south and even provide security guarantees, depending on the country.
United by Afghanistan?
In May, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon visited Tehran for the first time since 2013. Despite the cultural and linguistic links between the countries, Tajik-Iranian relations have been complicated. This time things were different.
Prior to Rahmon’s arrival in Iran, the two countries had inaugurated a drone factory in Tajikistan that will produce Iranian-made Ababil-2 UAVs. The development appears as a reaction from Dushanbe to Kyrgyzstan’s purchase of Turkish-made Bayraktar drones last year.
In Tehran, Rahmon met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The usual barrage of cooperation agreements was signed by both presidents, covering different areas including trade, energy and transportation. But the most important aspect related to security matters and, more specifically, to Afghanistan.
During the meeting with Rahmon, the Iranian president cited concerns over instability in Afghanistan and the fight against extremism, terrorism and organized crime as common concerns between Iran and Tajikistan. “The two countries share the same opinion on the fact that the presence of outsiders in the region has never been security-building, and will never be so,” he stated.
The following month, in June, the first meeting of the joint security task force between Iran and Tajikistan took place in Dushanbe, with the presence of the Iranian Deputy Interior Minister and of the Tajik Interior Minister. The Iranian side expressed its readiness for any assistance in terms of security to Tajikistan while the Tajiks vowed to expand cooperation in areas such as the fight against terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking.
Tajikistan has been the Taliban regime’s staunchest opponent in the region. Its support for the Afghan opposition is also driven by the presence in Afghanistan of Tajik militant groups such as Jamaat Ansarullah, whom the Taliban put in charge of a number of districts along the common border. Earlier in May, the Afghan branch of the Islamic State claimed to have launched several rockets against Tajikistan.
Meanwhile, Iran has had its share of issues with neighboring Afghanistan. Several shootings have taken place along the border, with clashes in December and March allegedly resulting in casualties. There have also been issues with Iran’s treatment of Afghan refugees. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan is an uncomfortable neighbor for both Tehran and Dushanbe.
With Russia, Tajikistan’s traditional security guarantor, busy in Ukraine, Dushanbe may be looking elsewhere for an ally in the region, with an eye on Afghanistan. As Muslimbek Buriev wrote for the Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting (CABAR), Tehran is “an ideal option.” Both countries are unsettled by Afghanistan and Iran is already a partner of Russia, so such a cooperation will not raise alarms in Moscow.
A Matter of Gas
Turkmen-Iranian relations had seen better days until recently. Tehran was a consumer of Turkmen gas up until 2017, when a disagreement regarding payments led to the end of gas exports. That meant that Turkmenistan lost a client, increasing its dependence on China, while Iran had to face issues in the supply of gas to its energy-poor northeast. That has now started to change.
In mid-June, Turkmenistan’s new president, Serdar Berdymukhamedov, visited Iran. It was only his second official foreign trip as president, and his second time in Tehran this year, given he had been there in January as deputy prime minister. In the Iranian capital he met with his counterpart and with the supreme leader. As it was the case with Rahmon, a number of cooperation agreements were signed, covering economic, trade and transportation issues, among others. But what is more relevant is what happened on the sidelines.
Iran’s Minister of Petroleum Javad Owji said that the country was working out a way to pay its debt to Turkmenistan, which the Turkmens claim to be around $1.8 billion. That is nothing new, as he said the same last year, but this time he explained how they planned to do so: by using the $1.6 billion owed to them by Iraq, also relating to gas.
Iran already plays an important role in a tripartite agreement with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. The gas swap that started last year sees Iran importing Turkmen gas in the east and exporting the equivalent in the west to Azerbaijan. Baku has already indicated that it wants to double the 1.5 to 2 billion cubic meters of gas that it is already importing this way.
Besides the payment of the money owed, the potential resumption of gas exports to Iran and the increase in the swap with Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan is also looking to export electricity to third countries via Iran. Tehran can therefore become a key economic partner for Turkmenistan at a time when Ashgabat is almost exclusively dependent on Beijing. Meanwhile, Iran benefits by supplying its northeastern territories with gas and from any future transit fees. Freight transit is also an important component of this relationship.
In Search of a Transport Corridor
On June 19, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev arrived in Iran. He became the third Central Asian head of state of visit the country in little over a month. In Tehran, he met with Raisi and Khamenei, just as Tajikistan’s Rahmon and Turkmenistan’s Berdymukhamedov had done before him. This trip was not the only one by high-ranking Kazakh official in 2022. The Kazakh minister of trade visited the Iranian capital back in February.
In Tehran, Tokayev and his counterpart signed nine cooperation agreements, the same number as with Berdymukhamedov, covering a wide range of topics including transport, energy, investment, and tourism. In addition, the establishment of joint chambers of commerce and the introduction of visa-free travel for Iranians in Kazakhstan for 14 days were announced. But it is Iran’s role as a transit corridor that interests Nur-Sultan the most.
Tokayev and Raisi attended virtually from Tehran the launch ceremony of the first container train from Kazakhstan to Turkey via Turkmenistan and Iran. At a time when Russia is hit by sanctions, and Moscow continues to make irredentist claims over Kazakh territory, Kazakhstan does well in looking to diversify its trade routes. And Iran, via Turkmenistan, is one the alternatives. The trains using the railway will be able to cover the more than 6,000 kilometers separating Kazakhstan and Turkey in 12 days. The next step will be to add China to the corridor, with a train expected to complete that route next month. However, this is not an entirely new project given that the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway connection has been in operation since 2014. It has, however, now become more relevant.
Besides the railway link all the way to Turkey, Kazakhstan has been looking at the Iranian port cities of Bandar Abbas and Chabahar for some time. In the former it opened a consulate back in 2018 and it has shown interest in the latter, key to India’s trade with Central Asia.
Despite Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev not having been to Iran yet this year, Tashkent is also in Tehran’s mind. On June 20, at the initiative of the Iranian side, the ministers of foreign affairs of both countries held a telephone conversation on the topic of cooperation on different spheres. As with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan is mostly interested in Iran’s transit potential. One of the foreign policy priorities of the current Uzbek administration is to get access to Asian ports in the south, both Pakistan’s and Iran’s. In the latter’s case, Uzbekistan is already a user of the facilities at Bandar Abbas and, since this year, can also access Chabahar.
Iran-Central Asia relations have been improving recently. Whether it is by supplying gas to part of the country, earning transit fees, or ensuring security cooperation, Iran can benefit from these better ties. Central Asia also benefits, although U.S.-imposed sanctions can at times hinder progress. Iran can become a customer of the region’s energy exports, supply military assistance and, more importantly, help Central Asia solve one of its connection problems by providing a window to the wider world.