Iran and China Rise; Shall Russia and the U.S. Fade Away?

by Joshua Foust on 8/15/2007 · 2 comments

Back in April, Nathan noted a curious advertising campaign within Uzbekistan: Tajik aluminum makes baby Uzbeks sad! Uzbekistan isn’t the only country pissed off by Tajikistan’s aluminum industry, however. It would appear Russia has good cause to be miffed as well: after detailing what looks like a convoluted powerplay for control of Tajikistan’s processed metal exports (involving the World Bank, EBRD, and several layers of English courts), journalist John Helmer posits the following:

Why it would pay Rahmon and Bobkhonov to risk their reputations once more, after getting them blackened through Talco in the first round, becomes clearer, once the role of the EBRD and the World Bank to orchestrate the Norwegian takeover of Tajikistan’s aluminum business is understood as part of a general strategy to eliminate Russian influence in the country.

Yes, poor Russia, always at the whims of those nasty Western banks and energy consumers. Sheesh. That article could have been written by Fakhriddin Nizamov, if I squinted my eyes enough. But it is nevertheless revealing: Russia is worried about its influence in Central Asia. This is nothing new—the Duma has been debating as much since at least the late 1990’s—but the seeming paranoia with which many Russians (and Russophiles) approach the influence game in Central Asia has certainly appeared to reach a fever pitch in the last year or so. Could this be because of Iran and China?

Iran Rises

Recall, if you will, when I was speculating on the coming and larger role Iran will be playing in the affairs of Central Asia.

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?

This statement was quibbled with, as many thought I overstated the way in which Dushanbe lights herself at the whims of her neighbors. But it’s no secret Iran has been buying influence in the area—or at least trying to. Might Russia be getting truly worried about this?

Indeed, glancing at President Ahmadinejad’s travel schedule reveals an interesting focus:

This week, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad kicks off a tour of neighboring states in South and Central Asia with a trip that begins in Kabul and ends in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in time to attend the next summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

With the security deterioration in Afghanistan, openly admitted to by that country’s President Hamid Karzai on his recent trip to Washington, and rising Islamic militancy in the region and in China’s western autonomous region of Xinjiang, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a key regional player that can be counted on by the SCO member states, irrespective of China’s recent misgivings about Iran’s inclusion as a full member.

In Afghanistan, Ahmadinejad will emphasize the good neighbor policy of Iran, something about which I remain disappointed. When Iran helped the U.S. throw out the Taliban in 2001-2, I had high hopes it would lead both to a useful détente with Iran, and brighter prospects for Afghanistan, as at least one of her neighbors would be actively assisting in her reconstruction. I’m not alone in this, either—back in April, AfghanWire interviewed Anatol Lieven, a former foreign correspondent who covered the area and current Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. He said the following:

“I’ve always strongly advocated the need for a measure of reconciliation with Iran for the sake of development in Afghanistan, apart from anything else. Iran is absolutely critical for the development of Afghanistan. Indeed, I don’t believe that you can develop Afghanistan without a strong Iranian role, in terms of transport links, in terms of Iran being by far the strongest regional economy, in terms of Iran – if only we could use it – having this enormous pool of, of course, Farsi-speaking engineers, doctors, architects…you know, people we could be using to develop Afghanistan, at a tiny fraction of the cost of employing Western companies and experts. But nobody in America is thinking in these terms. It’s just a thought that is never mentioned.”

Naturally, Iran doing anything that might highlight the growing failure of U.S. policy is bound to “ruffle feathers” here in the States—especially when our starchild Hamid Karzai sides with Iran. Naturally, the best the Bush administration can think of is to petulantly claim Iran is arming the Taliban—an idea I thoroughly discount without further evidence. Iran has a vested interest in a secure Afghanistan, especially one run by a friendly like Karzai—there is no strategic logic to ruining that just to spite the U.S. (and an Iran-friendly Afghanistan pissed off at the U.S. is a far bigger coup than just tying down a few thousand troops).

More broadly, however, Iran’s investments in Afghanistan are important, effective in the case of Herat, and quite often “nixed” by American officials. A source in Kabul tells me that Iran’s influence in Parliament is very real, and the rumors it actively manipulated the Afghan parliament to get Spanta sacked by expelling the Iranian refugees is “largely true.” This source also points to an interesting project backed by Iranian money: the new Kabul madrassa near Darulaman Palace, built by Sheikh Asif Mohseni. Mohseni is the kind of man the U.S. should be actively courting: a Pashtun Shi’ite with ties to the mujahideen, who runs a moderate Islamist TV station. Though almost certainly funded by Iran, he represents a sort of religious parity we need to encourage in the country… if Iran weren’t around to make American policymakers turn their noses into the air.

Iran’s growing influence at the cost of American strategic interests, however, isn’t limited to Afghanistan. Turkmenistan also has been playing up its growing relationship with Tehran as well. Since the death of Turkmenbashi, this has been a major strategic weakness of American policy in the area, at least so far as it relates to energy security: we have ceded power and influence to both Russia and Iran. This began in earnest back in March, but continues apace, with Turkmenistan and Iran openly contemplating forming a natural gas cartel to control and further commodify the supply of natural gas.

Indeed, Ahmadinejad’s swing west to Ashgabat on his way to Bishkek from Kabul shows just how important he considers Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov. Kabul makes sense given the Iranian projects in the country; Bishkek makes sense, as Iran is angling for deeper involvement with the SCO; in isolation, Ashgabat wouldn’t make much sense, unless it’s viewed through the strategic logic of building relationships to control energy markets. And again, that is an area where the U.S.’s studied indifference to all things Central Asia will create large headaches over the next decade.

China Pushes West
Discussing China’s role in Central Asia is a tricky beast—there is a tendency to slip into fanciful hyperbole, or to wildly overstate China’s actual influence in the area. But it is also no secret that Beijing wants a larger role west of the Tien Shan.

China’s growing influence in the region should first be seen through the eyes of Pakistan, who’s fate exerts a huge influence over groups like the Taliban, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Hizb-i-Islami, and whatever might remain of the IMU/IMT. This is important because by all indications, it was China who demanded the seige at the Lal-Masjid mosque last month, which was a bloody, high-profile standoff between Islamists and the Pakistani government. Indeed, China has been one of Pakistan’s only reliable friends since China and India went to war over the fate of Aksai Chin (and a few other border zones along Tibet) in 1963. This means China probably has more of say in what Pakistan does than the U.S. does—despite our much-ballyhooed $800 million aid package.

China’s reach is not limited to Pakistan, however. The SCO exercises (barely mentioned in American media) started in Xinjiang, and go west through the bigger players in the SCO. The ultimate result of President Hu Jinato’s visit to Bishkek will be interesting to ponder: will he make any headway in perhaps convincing the Kyrgyz government to stop leasing us Manas?

China has also made inroads in Central Asian energy. Beyond the trans-Kazakh pipe they’re in the process of constructing, China has also scored a major pipe coming from Turkmenistan. The terms of the gas flow aren’t too spectacular: 30 billion cubic feet over 30 years. But again, it represents a major coup for Chinese energy concerns at the definite expense of Europe, the U.S., and potentially Russia (should relations between Ashgabat and Moscow go south again).

Where It All Might Lead

Indeed, Ashgabat is probably the city to watch over the next five years. Since the death of Sapurmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan has been at the center of a mad scramble for the country’s energy wealth—at least from Russia, China, and Iran. The fecklessness with which the U.S. has attempted to make “statements” is truly baffling in this sense. As I said in April:

The process of cutting Russia and its proposed gas cartel out of Turkmenistan would be good for people on several continents, especially if it were accompanied by an opening of Turkmen society, a major boon to the Turkmen people, who have missed out on their country’s gas wealth.

Russia’s hold on Turkmeni gas isn’t going away any time soon (though the recent snubbing of Vice-Premier Sergey Naryshkin was certainly interesting). But the growing roles of both China and Iran in the country certainly don’t bode well for the country being run rationally any time soon. That Russia hasn’t maintained its monopoly in the country may speak to its shaky grasp of the area—but again, they’re not to be counted out just yet.

And what of the U.S.? Well, we don’t really do much there any more. Our efforts in Turkmenistan have been so pathetic as to not even be worth mentioning (while heads of state travel multiple times to Ashgabat, we can barely muster an Assistant Secretary of State); everywhere else, from Kazakhstan in the north to Afghanistan in the south, American influence and popularity has been in a rather precipitous decline. From a strategic sense, it might as well be 1990 all over again, only the countries involved this time actually exist and are actively being courted by competitors.

It is still far too early to tell whether or not China or Iran may replace either Russia or the U.S. as the primary Big Players in the New New Great Game That Isn’t. But it is an issue that should concern anyone who realizes just how important this region is.

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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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benjamin August 17, 2007 at 6:11 am


I noticed that you didn’t make any mention of Turkey’s role in the current Great Game activities in Central Asia. Clearly, Turkey had a great interest in establishing its sphere influence in Central Asia following the fall of the Soviet Union. This sentiment eventually faded as Ankara realized that their Turkic connections in Central Asia were not as strong as they might have thought.

My question to you: Is there no evidence of Turkey becoming a player in the Central Asian sweepstakes? While I realize they don’t possess the same resources as China / Iran or Russia / U.S., do you envision any significant role for Turkey in the future?

Joshua Foust August 17, 2007 at 6:22 am

Hi. I certainly see Turkey trying (they’ve made a few weak stabs at it), but I don’t see how they can overcome the heft of Iran, Russia, China, the U.S., or the EU. The Turkic connection exists, but it’s also fairly weak, as you rightly said. There remains more cultural affinity for, depending on the country, China, Russia, or Iran—no one seems to want to announce Turkey as their best friend.

Which, I think, is too bad. I would prefer Turkey to Russia or Iran or China any day.

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