Total Conjecture: the Next Big Thing in Central Asia

by Joshua Foust on 7/2/2007 · 5 comments

Though technically outside the area we cover at, I’ve been writing a ton about Iran. There is a reason for this: taking a step back to look at what’s happened recently reveals some surprising hints about their intentions. I think Iran is trying to position itself as the next big player in Central Asia, with potentially deadly consequences should the U.S. misinterpret what’s going on.

This flies against conventional thinking on Persia. As a country, it is floundering—both domestically with the riots over gas rationing, and diplomatically with its increasingly severe isolation over its nuclear program. None of these things, however, imply Iran is in any way nearing collapse—in fact, this is just the latest of Iran’s periodic readjustments as the Ayatollahs figure out a new way of exercising their absolute power. How does this play into their intentions in Central Asia? With nothing more than mere supposition and inference to go on, I think Iran sees Central Asia as its last best hope. It is an area where it can build relationships with few to no ramifications in its nuclear crisis with the west. What’s more, I also think American misunderstanding over Iran’s intentions might lead the two countries into an unnecessary war.

When Sapumurat Niyazov died in December, Iran was suddenly presented with an opportunity: new leadership might mean less isolationism from gas-rich Turkmenistan. Back since at least March, Iran has been slowly but steadily building a stronger relationship with Ashgabat, starting direct flights to Tehran, and negotiating deals for pipelines. While they haven’t made very much progress in the last few months (most recently failing to secure a comprehensive treaty demarcating the Caspian Sea into national areas), this remains a major push by Tehran, with the eventual intention of becoming a major hub for Central Asian energy.

Why would Iran bother trying to get transit rights for gas, or even access to new fields, when it has so much oil under its own soil? Put simply, it’s broke—decades of economic malaise have resulted in a dilapidated petroleum infrastructure that will culminate in the near-complete cessation of oil exports by 2015. For a country that remains one of the primary global reserves of oil this is truly shocking. Further, this provides a very real reason for Iran to desire nuclear power, however destabilizing it may be: building a nuclear plant is several orders of magnitude cheaper than upgrading and expanding the entire country’s oil extraction, distribution, and export infrastructure.

This choice—nukes over oil—is already having a ripple effect in the area. Tajikistan, one of the main benefactors of Iranian investment, is facing down a funding cut as Iran contracts. Tajikistan is dependent on foreign investment to build a hydroelectric dam to supply power to the chronically energy-short country, and cutting off one of their big investors would have horrible consequences. Will Rahmon make any overtures to Tehran to keep the money flowing?

You can see Iran’s new push for influence in Afghanistan as well. A staunch opponent of the Taliban in the 90’s (nearly invading over their treatment of Herat in 1998), Iran has been accused of now supporting the Taliban as an anti-American proxy. Color me dubious: directly supporting the Taliban doesn’t make strategic sense, to say nothing of the deep and quite intractable ideological and religious differences between the two. That’s not to say Tehran isn’t supporting the Taliban somehow (they’re not opposed to supporting Sunni extremists, at least when they’re fighting Israel), but there is also a long-ish history of Bush administration officials falsely claiming Iran was in cahoots with the Taliban—and even then, Condi Rice immediately said she “clearly” knew the idea was preposterous. More recently, Defense Secretary Gates has backed off his original language claiming Iran was actively arming the Taliban, and now says only that Iran probably knows it’s happening. (A Pakistani paper tries to make the case that by using Iranian-made weapons, Tehran is trying to make a statement, but given the Pakistani interests in deflecting attention away from their own deep support of the Taliban, I’m inclined to discount it.)

Indeed, Iran seems happy to enjoy its close relationship with Afghanistan. Spoiling that would make no sense and gain them no long term benefit: despite the massive deportation of Afghan refugees, applications for Iranian visas in Afghanistan remain at high levels, and Iran’s help in ousting the Taliban, and its support and investment in western cities like Herat have generated tremendous goodwill. There is no reason for Iran, given its precarious economic state, to invest in rebuilding a country only to then fund the people trying to tear it down. And if there’s one thing the U.S. is getting wrong, it is realizing that Afghans appreciate investment far more than weapons.

It’s not even a given Iran knows of the weapons shipments, at least specifically. Given the close relationship between the Taliban and the drug lords, and knowing the majority of opium and opium products flow into Iran, the most likely explanation is that it is the drug lords who are buying Iranian weapons. Such a situation would be embarrassing for Tehran, as it would not want to admit it can’t control its eastern border, and it would not want to have any hand in arming its enemies. But a cash-strapped regime might not look too closely at the men buying its weapons.

How does all this relate to the U.S.? The reckless accusations against Iran—most notably by Undersecratary of State Nicholas Burns—are creating war fervor, of sorts. Iran has been accused, quite convincingly, of supporting both Hezbollah and various Shiite militias in Iraq. While those make sense—Iran will attack Israel any way it can, and it would support its co-religionists in a civil war—none of the accusations about Afghanistan seem coherent. They have successfully bogged down the U.S. in Iraq; doing so in Afghanistan would be beyond the pale. The leadership in Tehran isn’t stupid. They know that if Americans, who right now are resistant to going to war with yet another country in the Middle East, see Iranian proxy fighters killing Americans in two countries, the game is up, and bombs would fall.

The Bush administration has missed the real danger with Iran. It is not nuclear weapons, nor is it the improbable funding of the Taliban. Rather, it is Iran’s push to influence Central Asian energy. My frustrations with American impotence over Turkmenistan run deep, and Russia has successfully shouldered the U.S. out of Kazakhstan’s future gas capacity. American influence in the region is waning, dropping back down to its mid-90’s level. In fact, I would say The U.S. is in serious danger of losing any local sway it has for many years to come—and that while new gas fields and new pipes are being negotiated and constructed. An improper focus on the wrong war—a sadly common theme with the Bush administration—is slowly steering us toward disaster.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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brian II July 2, 2007 at 10:49 am

“The Bush administration has missed the real danger with Iran. It is not nuclear weapons, nor is it the improbable funding of the Taliban. Rather, it is Iran’s push to influence Central Asian energy.”

Suggesting that UZ or TK trusts (or can come to trust, in the near term) the regime in Iran or that KZ would take a laissez-faire attitude towards a nuclear Iran is not accurate. The US will continue to ask KZ (as has already been done in the UN) as a proxy to get Iran to lay down on the nuke issue.

Central Asian counterparts are not naive and know that much of their current (and future) financial wealth is due to the infrastructure of their Soviet predecessors, and their current western/Russian/Chinese trade partners, not their Persian heritage or trade partners to the south.

There is no modern legacy of trustworthy, high-level economic or social relations between Iran and TK/UZ/KZ, the energy countries. KZ does not aspire to be another Islamic republic, which may have a limiting effect on building closer economic relations. The US and RU are also more active in TK than you seem to know/think.

In TJ, there is no shortage of EBRD or WB (or RU) money so the void of Teheran can be filled without a blink. It would be great for UZ if there was some ‘normalization’ of relations with Iran as it would finally give access to the ocean closest port – Bander Abbas. But not in IAK’s lifetime.

It’s interesting to read the Monday-morning QB comments on Iraq…it seemed these pages carried a few of the most stalwart supporters of “Operation Enduring Freedom” in the early days. I guess once the home team gets too far behind, the fans start leaving the stadium. Hey, you had a chance to fire the coach four years ago but chose not to.

Joshua Foust July 2, 2007 at 11:04 am

I never discussed the likelihood of whether the other countries there would respond favorably to Iranian overtures, with the exception of wondering if Rahmon would take steps to ensure or guarantee further Iranian investment… and I wouldn’t exactly say the country has “no shortage” of money. It is desperately poor and can barely function as it is.

And while Iraq barely factors into this discussion apart from Iran’s role in it, you won’t find me supporting it since Abu Ghraib. I can’t speak to Nathan, but the last presidential election (which was between two reprehensible men) doesn’t factor into the discussion here, either. This is about Iran, Iranian intentions, and Iranian actions. Moreover, this is pure supposition and educated guesswork: I said as much.

Bonnie Boyd July 2, 2007 at 6:48 pm

Dear Joshua,
This is a very interesting take on Iran’s geopolitical stance vis-a-vis Central Asia. First of all, I consider Iran to be practitioners of balance of power in Central Asia even excluding Afghanistan, just as you do. There are even some parallels to China, because Northern Iran, just like NW China, is sort of the “opposite end” in terms of development.

As for Tajikistan, Iran is not the most moneyed or desirable sponsor, but I doubt funds will entirely dry up. For one thing, Iran is relying upon small states in the UN to speak up on its behalf.

And as for the weapons, etc, I think that you are spot-on that this has to do with drug lords as much as anything. Just because Iran has tight control does not mean it has universal control within its borders, or corruption, etc. As the economy continues to dive, this fraying will increase rather than decrease. So all in all I think some excellent points are made here.

Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

Péter July 2, 2007 at 11:35 pm

Hi, Joshua, I’ve been following what you’ve been saying so far about Iran’s role in Afghanistan, and I ‘d just like to join in in agreement now. Definitely this has to be about the drug shipments/weapons shipments cycle in the works partly. In some other cases, like in the case of fighting in Shindand district, in Herat province, that we saw in May, one may speculate that Iran-the-state may have been there with direct or indirect support behind those having a go at the Afghan forces and the coalition there, but those people were called ‘Taliban’ a little too automatically. And Iran may definitely be working on destabilising its neighbourhood, working on it a little in Afghanistan, too (most notably with the refugee deportations), for tactical reasons. Too bad for them they are effectively biting into their own arm that way. They might get rid of the refugees for now, but they badly need stability in Afghanistan for the long run.

KZBlog July 4, 2007 at 5:07 am

There certainly has been trade between Iran and Kazakhstan, and diplomats fly back and forth. For those who theorize that Kazakhstan’s foreign policy is primarily to try to play Washington, Moscow and to some extent Beijing off of each other to get the best deal, having Tehran as a fourth pole (one that is closer than the other three, and one that is hated by Washington, and somewhat tolerated by Moscow) isn’t the worst idea in the world. And while Persian culture is not very strong here, nor will KZ ever become an Islamic state, there are historical and cultural ties there.

Good analysis and very plausible.

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