Can Iran Counter Its Rivals in Central Asia Through Connectivity Push?

Central Asia is becoming a competing ground for regional and extra regional powers with Russia losing its influence in the region as a result of war with Ukraine. While China has been taking steps to replace Russia as an influential power in the region since long time, other powers such as the United States, the European Union and Turkiye are keen as well to gain greater footprints in Central Asia. At the same time Iran is also pushing forward with initiatives to strengthen its ties with Central Asia. 

Considered as Russia’s sphere of influence, the Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are being courted by different powers as the war in Ukraine has had a diminishing effect on Russia’s hold on the region. However, at the same time Central Asia is also becoming a competing ground for rivalry between Iran on one side and the US, the EU and Turkiye on the other.  

Iran’s rivalry with the US, the EU and Turkiye

Iran has had long-standing disputes with the West – particularly the US and the EU over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or the Iran nuclear deal. The deal has been in jeopardy since the US pulled out in 2018. The revival of the deal is increasingly becoming uncertain with no side willing to compromise. Further the Western countries have been imposing sanctions on Iran citing human rights violations following the death of Mahsa Amini in September. Also Iran’s alleged sale of drones to Russia has also added to the complexities in Iran’s relations with the US and the EU. 

As regards to Turkiye, Iran considers it a competitor in the Muslim world. There have been attempts to build cordial ties between these neighbours but geopolitical stakes across the Middle East could prevent easing of tensions between the two.  

Central Asia as a competing ground for the rivalry

Iran’s rivalry with the US, the EU and Turkiye could play out in Central Asia as all these powers are competing for increasing their footprint in the region. 

Initiatives from the US, the EU and Turkiye in Central Asia

The US has minimal interactions with Central Asia. While energy resources may be a driving factor, the US-Central Asia relations have been uneasy. The withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 further raised questions regarding the US’ outreach to the region. The US formulated a United States Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025. However, the US’ stress for democratic ideals and concerns about human rights in Central Asian countries coupled with the latter’s disinclination towards the West have kept the ties underdeveloped. However, the Russia-Ukraine war could propel the US to reorient its strategy towards Central Asia. 

The EU has also been engaging with Central Asia through focused initiatives. In 2007, the EU released its strategy The EU and Central Asia: Strategy for a New Partnership. In 2019, the EU formulated The EU and Central Asia: New Opportunities for a Stronger Partnership. In October this year, the first regional Central Asia-European Union high-level meeting was held in Astana, Kazakhstan. On Nov. 18, Samarkand EU-Central Asia Connectivity Conference: Global Gateway was held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. This was the first conference under the Global Gateway Strategy adopted by the EU. 

Compared to the US and the EU, Turkiye has been more successful in its outreach to Central Asia. Turkey sees an opportunity to enhance its influence in the region by projecting the identity factor – Turkic ethnicity. Four of the five Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – have majority ethnic Turkic population. Turkiye has evoked the identity factor to its advantage. Organization of Turkic States is a major platform for Turkiye to engage with the Turkic Central Asian countries. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are members of this group while Turkmenistan is an observer. Turkiye is also involved in the development of the Trans-Caspian East-West-Middle Corridor Initiative, termed as Middle Corridor that seeks to connect Turkiye to China through Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. The Middle Corridor is perceived as an alternative to the Northern Corridor that runs through Russia and a counter to Iran’s connectivity initiatives. 

Iran’s connectivity initiatives in Central Asia

Iran has rapidly emerged as a major transport hub. Iran’s strategic location as a connecting link between West Asia and South Asia gives it distinct leverage. Iran is trying to bank on this advantage and push for greater engagements with Central Asia. 

Iran hosted the first Summit on Transit Cooperation with the Central Asian countries in Tehran on Oct. 8 and 9. The cooperation between Iran and Central Asian countries is expected to adopt coordinated policies to remove obstacles regarding transit issues. Through the transit deal with the Central Asian countries, Iran is seeking to achieve an annual target of 20 million ton transit. Earlier in September, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi stated that expansion of relations with Central Asia is a priority for Iran’s foreign policy. 

In 2021, Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan signed a trilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to expand their railroad cooperation. 

Apart from these initiatives, Iran is involved in three major projects – the Chabahar Port, the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and the Ashgabat Agreement. The Chabahar Port, developed by India, connects India to Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. It allows India to circumvent Pakistan and create maritime access for the landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asian countries. 

In July this year, the INSTC became operational. India plans to link the INSTC to Chabahar Port which would enhance outreach to the Central Asian countries. Another initiative, the Ashgabat Agreement came into force in 2016 which is expected to enhance connectivity between Central Asian and Eurasian countries. It is also proposed to synchronize the Ashgabat Agreement with the INSTC. 

Iran lacks economic heft of its rivals. However, connectivity initiatives may give Iran an edge over its rivals in Central Asia. With transit routes and supply lines disrupted due to the Russia-Ukraine war, Iran’s position as a connectivity point to South Asia, Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia could be a pivot with the landlocked Central Asian countries. The global economic power center shifting to Asia, Iran offers an attractive outreach to the Central Asian countries to South Asia, particularly to India. With Russia’s eroding influence, Central Asian countries would seek to diversify their external engagements. Iran’s proposition as a gateway to South and Southeast Asia could lead to Central Asian countries strengthening their ties with Iran. 

Along with countering the rivals, Iran would look at fully operational transit routes as a means to revive its struggling economy. Also while Iran has close ties with China, the connectivity push would allow Iran to diversify its economic engagements which could be leverage in relations with China. Connectivity could be the deciding factor in engaging with Central Asia in which Iran could have the advantage over its rivals.

[Aerial view of the Chabahar Port project. Credit: Amohammadid, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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