Iran has positioned itself as an important regional actor in Central Asia and is committed to playing a role in neighbouring Afghanistan. As US troops draw down their numbers in Afghanistan, Washington should consider how improved US-Iranian relations could further long-term US policy goals in Afghanistan and in the region.
Iran’s Close Ties to Central Asia
Iranian leaders pride themselves on being important actors in Central Asia, and they take advantage of all available international forums to make this case. For their part, the region’s other countries maintain normal diplomatic and trade relations with Iran. The respect accorded to Iran in Central Asia was underscored by the presence of the presidents of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration. Uzbekistan, which has kept somewhat more distance from Iran, sent the head of its parliament, as did Russia.
The three Central Asian presidents used their presence to bring up the topics of greatest importance to them. For the Tajiks, who share a language and culture with the Iranians and call Iran a “strategic partner,” this meant discussing Tajikistan’s hydroelectric plans.
Transport links were major themes for both the Kazakh and Turkmen leaders. With Iran, these countries are constructing a new railroad to link Uzen in Kazakhstan with Gyzylgaya, Bereket, and Etrek in Turkmenistan and end at Gorgan in the Iranian province of Golestan. The railroad will expand access for the Central Asian nations to Persian Gulf ports.
The Kazakh and Turkmen presidents jointly opened the first section of the railroad on May 11, 2013, during Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s official visit to Kazakhstan. The nearly 50-mile Iranian portion was inaugurated later that month.
But international sanctions against Iran have complicated Tehran’s attempts to gain influence in Central Asia. Given Iran’s participation in the project, for example, the new railroad could not secure international multilateral institution funding. Instead, it is being built with funds of the national railway companies of Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.
Furthermore, Iran is not part of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) or the Central Asian Regional Economic Coordination, the ADB’s ten-country partnership that is sponsoring six new transport corridors to better link Afghanistan and Central Asia with Europe and Asia.
Sanctions against Iran have also limited international oil and gas export routes from the region by making it impossible to secure international financing for such projects. While the new rail link will create options for Kazakhstan to send oil to the Persian Gulf, the Kazakhs have been frustrated in their desire to transport “big oil” or “big gas” through Iran. They do, however, supply northern Iran with oil and receive the export income from oil swapped by the Iranians in the south.
Turkmenistan has also had to fund its own projects in Iran. Years before the prospect of shipping large amounts of gas through China became possible, the Turkmen, angered by the terms of trade with Russia, agreed to build a gas pipeline from Korpezhe in Turkmenistan to Kurt Kui in Iran. Built in 1997 with a maximum capacity of 8 billion cubic metres per year (bcm/y), or 282 billion cubic feet per year (bcf/y), 35 per cent of the gas went to pay for Turkmenistan’s share of construction costs during the first years. A second Turkmenistan–Iran line, the Dauletabad–Khangiran Pipeline, with a capacity of 12 bcm/y (424 bcf/y) was completed in 2010.
In addition to cooperation on transport, all of the Central Asian countries trade actively with Iran; in 2010 Iran was the fourth-largest exporter to Central Asia, with 4.8 per cent of all exports, following distantly behind China, Russia, and the EU. Iran is a major buyer of Central Asian cotton, traditionally purchasing from Tajikistan, but it also became an important source of cotton sales for Uzbekistan after the EU introduced trade restrictions against Tashkent.
Rouhani has signalled the importance of the Central Asian region by deciding to make his first international trip; a visit to Bishkek to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, just days before the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Iran, an observer in the SCO, has long sought full membership in that organization. But Russia has spoken out against Iran receiving full membership because of the difficulties that this might pose for the organization as a whole given the international sanctions in place against Iran. Afghanistan is also an observer of the SCO, and Turkey just took on this status in April, suggesting that the SCO might well be positioning itself to play a greater role in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops in 2014.
Iran’s Engagement in Afghanistan
Playing a greater role in Afghanistan seems a clear goal of Iran. The two states share a border that is more than 560 miles long. Ambassador James Dobbins, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, notes that the suggestion that Hamid Karzai should lead Afghanistan was raised by the Iranian delegation to the international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, in 2001.
According to Dobbins, he and Javad Zarif, then Iran’s delegate to the conference and today the minister of foreign affairs, found informal settings in which to “accidently” meet and hold important substantive discussions. Dobbins noted that Iran pledged $540 million in assistance at the first Tokyo Conference in 2002, the largest commitment made by any non-Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nation. Most of this assistance, according to Dobbins, was actually provided.
The US-Iran relations soured when Mohammad Khatami was the president, and deteriorated dramatically during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. This created a very awkward moment for the US at the fifth Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan meeting in March 2012. US officials played a major role in helping organize the conference but were left playing a backstage role given the participation of Ahmadinejad who used the occasion to attack the US-led NATO presence in Afghanistan, demanding that reparations be paid to the Afghan people. This prompted the US delegation, led by Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, to leave the room. But this departure failed to have the desired effect.
Iran is not part of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) or the Central Asian Regional Economic Coordination, the ADB’s ten-country partnership that is sponsoring six new transport corridors to better link Afghanistan and Central Asia with Europe and Asia.
US-Iran Relations and the Future of Afghanistan
There is no reason to think that US priorities on Afghanistan will be of anything other than marginal concern when the Obama administration considers how to deal with the Rouhani administration. Despite an agreement between the P5+1 and Iran, the lifting of international sanctions against Iran depends on the international community being satisfied that Tehran is indeed only pursuing the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
But an improved US-Iranian relationship would yield many other dividends to US foreign policy goals, not the least of which is that it would make the regional solution to Afghanistan’s economic recovery that Washington yearns for a much more realizable goal. Hopefully Javad Zarif and James Dobbins will have new opportunities to negotiate with each other and shape a more productive relationship for Iran, the United States, and Afghanistan.