Could Uzbekistan be Iran’s bastion of influence in Central Asia?

Could Uzbekistan be Iran’s bastion of influence in Central Asia?
International interest in Uzbekistan has been revived by the rise to power of the apparently reform-minded President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
By Kanat Shaku in Almaty November 14, 2017

In times of yore, the territories now covered by Iran and Uzbekistan were both part of the Persian Empire. Yet the two nations have grown distant in the one hundred years since the Uzbeks were enveloped into the Soviet Union.

Following the collapse of the Communist bloc in 1991, the subsequent hard authoritarian rule of isolationist post-Soviet autocrat Islam Karimov, who ruled as president for 25 years until his death in September 2016, did little to improve things. While Uzbekistan shut itself off from the outside world because of Karimov’s paranoia, Iran was closed off from international trade and investment due to the crippling Western nuclear sanctions. But gone is Karimov and gone are the sanctions, and both Iran and Uzbekistan have been opening up, including to each other.

Uzbekistan’s fortunes may have been revived by the rise to power of Karimov's successor, the apparently reform-minded President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Karimov took a highly cautious approach to his neighbours, but Mirziyoyev is looking to bolster regional cooperation. Landlocked Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous nation, with towards 33mn inhabitants, is under its new broom aiming to foster trade with the next-door neighbours that are part of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and, just a little further afield, with Iran.

Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov made that much clear when he led a delegation to Iran in October. A business forum held as part of the visit on October 18 saw entrepreneurs of both countries sign agreements worth $25.5mn, mostly in relation to agricultural and textile products. The two sides also signed “mutually beneficial bilateral documents” worth $7.5mn, according to Trend news agency.

Among other specific topics, Iran and Uzbekistan mulled improving their banking and visa issuance regimes to boost trade.

Uzbekistan the hungrier

When it comes to mutual trade, Uzbekistan is the party with the greater hunger. The delegation's visit concluded with Tashkent and Tehran discussing the possibility of Uzbekistan buying Iranian crude oil—a resource much sought after by the Uzbeks who under Karimov suffered lengthy oil and petrol shortages.

Iranian oil would be a welcome addition to the Russian, Kazakh and Turkmen supplies Uzbekistan secured earlier in the year, although, in the case of the former two, Uzbekistan must first rehabilitate a pipeline before it can bring in any oil flows.

Iran’s Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh said “high-ranking” Tashkent oil officials will come to Tehran in the near future to develop the oil deal-making. "Exports to [Uzbekistan] need to be conducted overland and probably by rail," he added.

Surely enough, shortly after the Uzbek delegation’s visit to Iran, Afghanistan’s railway administration announced that Uzbekistan was interested in helping Afghanistan build a railway line between the two countries in order to gain “a direct route” to Iran. Uzbekistan is already connected to Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan—the idea is for a new line from Mazar-i-Sharif to Herat that would extend the railway route to the Iranian border.

The Afghan railway administration noted the new northwest link would in fact help increase trade between Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. That would also be in line with China’s massive One Belt, One Road trade infrastructure initiative which seeks to turn Central Asia into a transit zone for Chinese goods exports. An existing segment of a China-Iran railway passing through Uzbekistan could also potentially serve to enhance trade between Uzbekistan and Iran.

Apart from being keen on importing Iranian oil, Uzbekistan is also pursuing possible access via Iran to the Persian Gulf. During an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Astana in September, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hinted that Iran could become the “shortest route” for Uzbekistan’s business people to access the Persian Gulf and international waters. The Iranian president’s remarks followed Uzbekistan’s lifting of strict currency controls on September 5, which have long hurt the Central Asian country’s prospects for drawing in FDI.

The visit to Iran paid by the Uzbek delegation represents more than just economic benefits for Uzbekistan, however; as there is a political dimension to the thawing relations between the countries.

Iran’s ambitions 

After Uzbekistan gained its independence in late 1991, Karimov’s government, fearing Islamist terrorists groups, saw Iran as an Islamic-fundamentalist threat, despite Iran’s mostly Shi’a population having little in common with Sunni-related Islamist groups, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which only has connections to extremist cells in Afghanistan. Even after Karimov’s death, Uzbekistan was seen as a less likely Central Asia ally for Tehran compared to, for instance, Tajikistan, a country that shares a common cultural and linguistic heritage with the Islamic Republic.

However, the importance to Tehran of strengthening Uzbek-Iranian ties to maintain influence in Central Asia has grown throughout this year, given that Iran’s relations with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have deteriorated.

Tajikistan’s common Persian history with Iran has proved insufficient in keeping Dushanbe from complaining about Tehran's alleged intrusions in Tajik politics throughout recent decades. Such accusations reached new heights in August when Dushanbe condemned Iran for alleged involvement in Tajikistan’s 1992-97 civil war. It marked the first time that the Tajiks had publicly blamed Iran for meddling in their war.

According to allegations aired by Tajik state television in a documentary, Iran supposedly sent assassins and saboteurs into the former Soviet nation to support an Islamist-led rebel force. Three Tajiks shown in the documentary confessed to the killing of politicians and other prominent Tajik figures as well as attacks on a Tajikistan-based Russian military base. The trio, the documentary claimed, received financial support and training from Iran.

The documentary also claimed that the Tajiks were supporters of Abdukhalim Nazarzoda, an ex-deputy defence minister and rebel general, who was allegedly planning a coup and was killed in 2015 by Tajik authorities in a shootout. By linking the trio to Nazarzoda, Tajik authorities were implying that Iran has links to the banned Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), which was labelled as a terrorist organisation and even “recognised” by the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as an extremist group. While Nazarzoda has not explicitly been a supporter of the IRP, the authorities claim he operated on behalf of the banned party, when he attempted a coup.

The Tajik authorities have been cracking down on IRP members since the party was banned in 2015. Prior to the ban, the IRP was the only registered political party of Islamic affiliation in the whole of Central Asia. It also served as the only formidable political opposition to the Tajik regime led by Emomali Rahmon since 1992. The party failed to enter parliament in the February 2015 election, which international observers considered neither fair nor free. Its leader, Muhidding Kabiri, announced in June 2015 that he had gone into self-imposed exile amid repeated threats and fear for his life.

Some suggest Dushanbe’s move to accuse Iran appeared to be part of an ongoing reaction to Iran having invited the exiled Kabiri to a Tehran conference in December 2015. Tajikistan’s initial reaction to the event comprised of customs service restrictions on groceries imports from Iran and a shutdown of a popular Khujand city-based Iranian culture centre.

Others believe the Tajik authorities are driven by the push by Iran's regional arch-rival Saudi Arabia to boost cooperation with Dushanbe. Riyadh's ambassador to Tajikistan, Abdulaziz bin Mohammed Al-Badi, bragged in an interview in September of successfully pursuing diplomatic overtures that led to the “expulsion of Iran and its agents from the country,” Eurasianet reported.

“This is a great victory for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its wise leadership,” he added, as he described the “intensification” of ties with Tajikistan. Al-Badi said the Saudi-led Islamic Development Bank was providing interest-free loans for the construction of mosques and educational institutions across the Central Asian country. Six religious schools and two universities were planned for launch in the upcoming two years, he noted. In May, Saudi Arabia provided a $200mn grant to Tajikistan for the construction of parliamentary and government buildings in Dushanbe – one of Tajik President Rahmon’s vanity projects.

It is under these conditions that a partnership with Uzbekistan could be valuable for Iran, since the new Uzbek president has been mending his country’s ties with Central Asian neighbours – most notably ending the Tajik-Uzbek dispute over the construction of the Rogun dam. Uzbekistan is both arguably more influential in the region due to its relatively big population—Tajikistan’s population stands at a mere 8.7mn—and has the capacity to become the beacon of Central Asian synergy, as seen in Mirziyoyev’s repeated efforts to alleviate old rivalries and revive regional economic kinships.

Historical debts

Uzbekistan’s flourishing collaboration with Iran’s neighbour Turkmenistan, which includes joint ventures, could also prove useful to the Iranians. It could eventually help fix tensions between Tehran and Ashgabat, which flared up early in 2017 over Turkmen natural gas exports.

The unresolved dispute between Turkmengaz and Iran traces back to January 1 when Turkmen authorities terminated pipeline gas exports to northern Iranian provinces lacking the infrastructure to access Iran's plentiful gas, insisting the Iranians owed the company historical debts of more than $1.8bn in dues. The Turkmen foreign ministry said Iran's debts stemmed from a failure of the National Iranian Gas Company (NIGC) to abide by the "take or pay" provision of the gas supply contract. NIGC responded that “Turkmengaz has committed numerous violations of the terms of the contract, including in the quality and quantity of deliveries, which are subject to penalties provided in the contract”.

Analysts were left puzzled by the decision to stop gas exports to Iran as it left Turkmenistan with China as its only gas export customer. Iran has throughout this year stressed that it is prepared to take Turkmenistan before international arbitrators. Ashgabat has responded with similar threats, but has also claimed that it plans to maintain supplies to Iran at 7bcm in 2017, unchanged from 2016. This did not stop Iran from rejecting Turkmenistan’s proposed gas-swap deal to get Turkmen gas to Turkey and Iraq, although it has relented enough to allow gas swap arrangements involving supplies for Azerbaijan and Armenia.

As Turkmenistan finds itself in a desperate bind largely of its own making, while Iran may be facing a risk of losing influence in Central Asia to its Middle Eastern rivals, Uzbekistan may be in a position to serve as the voice of reason in the Iranians' rows across the region.

No trust issues were brought up during the Uzbek delegation's visit to Iran, even if Uzbekistan could easily find grounds for staying guarded. Though it was at the time closer to Tajikistan, in 2010 Iran interfered on behalf of the Tajiks during a Tajik-Uzbek railroad dispute by warning it would halt all Uzbek freight that passed through Iran.

A May article in The Diplomat cited a US ambassador to Tajikistan indicating a likelihood of Iran wanting to build a “Persian axis” along with Afghanistan and Tajikistan. If true, Iran’s choice would imply a preference for more distant relations with countries like Uzbekistan, where, since the country’s independence, the Tajik minority’s identity has been publically suppressed.

But alignments in Central Asian politics appear to have changed unrecognisably within the past year and reformist Mirziyoyev may end up becoming the missing piece of the Iran-Central Asia jigsaw of alliances.