President Hassan Rouhani’s recent trip to Turkmenistan cannot be dismissed as a one-off. Since coming to office in August 2013, the Rouhani administration has prioritized relations with the Muslim states of the former Soviet Union. Given the potential for economic ties and trade, Tehran’s aspirations are fully understandable.
Meanwhile, the Central Asian states are largely receptive. But for this latest momentum to gain enduring traction, Tehran has to be smart about its appeal to the Central Asians. For them, Iran is a very familiar civilization and a much-needed bridge to world markets. On the other hand, any attempt by Tehran to interject its Islamist ideology into relations will very likely give the famously cautious secular Central Asian governments reasons to once again pull away.
Rouhani in Ashgabat
Rouhani's March 10-11 visit to Turkmenistan, a famously insular country, picked up significant coverage in the Iranian media. As Iran’s Fars News pointed out, the Turkmen were also infatuated with the likely results to come from this rare state visit to Ashgabat.
While an expansion in economic ties is no doubt a real possibility, some of the pledges made during Rouhani’s visit amounted to diplomatic hype. Rouhani, for example, said that Iran and Turkmenistan have decided to increase trade from $3.7 billion to $60 billion per year in 10 years time. There was not much detail about how such a 16-fold increase can be achieved for two countries that each rely extensively on exporting oil and natural gas.
According to official accounts, Rouhani and his counterpart, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, signed 17 cooperation agreements in political, economic and cultural fields as well as a pledge to collaborate in tackling environmental issues and fighting terrorism. Security cooperation has certainly started to appear more prominently in relations. In September 2014, Hossein Dehqan became the first Iranian defense minister to ever visit Turkmenistan. Separately, there has also been a noticeable increase lately in Iranian-Kazakh defense discussions.
Both Iran and Turkmenistan are neighbors of warn-torn Afghanistan. Iranian-Turkmen cooperation about ways to prevent a spillover from Afghan instability and to combat the flow of Afghan drugs makes plenty of common sense. In that context, Tehran can be a useful partner for Ashgabat given Iran’s extensive experience in these fields. The Turkmen border with Afghanistan, which was until 1999 guarded by Russian troops, has become so unruly that Ashgabat is reportedly considering sealing the border entirely.
Another key security issue is the question of military presence in the Caspian Sea. Tehran has a long-held policy of wanting to keep extraterritorial powers — namely, the United States — from deploying any military forces in the region. There seems to be no disagreement between Tehran and Ashgabat on this critical point.
Iran, a bridge to the world
Common security-related interests aside, the major headline from Rouhani’s trip to Ashgabat has mostly to do with Iran’s renewed push to become a strategic conduit for Turkmenistan and the other four Central Asian states to world markets. According to Rouhani, Tehran and Ashgabat are determined to accelerate the construction and launch of the South-North corridor from the Sea of Oman and Iran to Turkmenistan. This project will provide the landlocked Central Asian states a major alternative outlet.
In early December, Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan launched a much-awaited railway that will link Central Asia to Iran’s southern ports. The first cargo of Kazakh wheat has already been shipped through this new route. The new 930-kilometer (577-mile) rail link is promoted by Tehran as a critical part of a regional transit hub that Iran considers itself best suited to undertake. At the same time, geography alone makes Turkmenistan Iran’s inevitable “bridge to the rest of Central Asia,” a point made by a former Iranian ambassador to the region.
The Central Asian states are clearly open to more economic and infrastructural linkages with Iran. Much of the new infrastructure put in place since they gained independence in 1991 has been eastward orientated with the aim of linking up to the Chinese market. That has so far worked well but there is always a danger of overreliance on China. Russia, on the other hand, the traditional route for much of Central Asian oil and natural gas exports, is experiencing deep political and economic challenges thanks to its fallout with the West over the Ukrainian crisis and sanctions imposed on Moscow. Meanwhile, Russian energy imports from the Central Asian producers, including Turkmenistan, are slated to be cut back in 2015.
These security and economic realities facing Turkmenistan and the other Central Asian states are providing a new impetus for the Iranian option to be reconsidered. That Rouhani is committed to return Iran to the international mainstream economy, and is pushing ahead to resolve Tehran’s nuclear file with the international community, only encourages Central Asian confidence in looking for ways to work with Iran. A push for greater trade and mutually beneficial infrastructure projects can certainly help herald a new era in Iran’s relations with the Central Asian states. Tehran, however, has to be careful. The five Central Asian states are all Muslim-majority countries but ruled by staunchly secular governments. To be fair to Tehran, the Islamic Republic has since 1991 never sought to forcefully push an Islamist agenda in its dealings with its northern neighbors. From a Central Asian perspective, for relations to become closer, it is imperative that Iran keeps it that way.