Russia Bolstering Presence in Central Asia: Threats and Opportunities for Iran

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Hassan Beheshtipour

Increased presence of Russia in Central Asia region can entail both opportunities and special threats for the Islamic Republic of Iran.

1. Political threats to Iran resulting from Russia’s presence in Central Asia

Russia has been habitually critical of the United States’ unilateral policies in the region. On the outward, Russia has been apparently following a multilateral policy at international level and has been encouraging the United States to follow suit by adopting similar policies. However, when it comes to Central Asia and Caucasus, Russia has been itself pursuing totally unilateral policies. Russia’s political behavior in this regard has been an obstacle to multilateral cooperation with such Asian countries as India, Iran and China. Moscow is actually willing to bolster its own influence in this region. Although Russia has close ties with a country like China, its major policy and measures taken by Moscow in the strategic regions of Central Asia and Caucasus have been largely unilateral.

As a result, Russia’s policy in Central Asia has been an impediment to creation of common opportunities for countries active there. On the contrary, Iran has been cooperating with Russia in the Middle East, including in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Therefore, it is quite natural for the Islamic Republic to expect Moscow to cooperate with Tehran in such important regions as Caucasus and Central Asia. Of course, due to Russia’s reluctance, this cooperation has not been realized so far.

2. Opportunities arising for national interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a result of Russia’s presence in Central Asia

a. Opportunities related to energy economy

Russia can have effective cooperation with Iran in the area of production and export of oil and gas. Of course, both countries are among major producers and exporters of oil and gas and are, therefore, rivals in this field, but that rivalry can take a different turn toward effective cooperation.

b. Opportunity for cultural cooperation

On the outward, there are few, if any, cultural commonalities between the two countries of Iran and Russia. However, when it comes to cultural issues, Iran has deep roots in Central Asia region. Therefore, Russia can use cultural issues as a suitable ground in order to help Tehran and Moscow forge a new sort of cultural cooperation in the aforesaid region.

Although Russians have spared no effort in the past 70 years to promote Russian language and culture in that region, this issue cannot be considered an obstacle for Iran and Russia to engage in cultural cooperation with countries located in Central Asia and Caucasus. Such a cooperation will also pave the way for a joint fight against all kinds of extremism in those regions.

There are many fertile grounds for cooperation between Iran and Russia in Central Asia. However, the absence of a model for effective cooperation has caused some of the existing opportunities to be squandered. Under these conditions, Iran has found itself more at loss and the main reason for this should be found in the pursuit of unilateral policies by Russia in Central Asia and Caucasus.

3. Iran, Russia and fields for political and geopolitical cooperation

a. Political and security cooperation

Both Iran and Russia are in a good position to implement joint security plans for the establishment of security across the region. They can also join hands in fighting terrorism and drug trafficking through effective cooperation.

Of course, both countries have put frequent emphasis on the need for cooperation between Tehran and Moscow in the field of fighting terrorism and drug trafficking in all kinds of joint announcements and statements. In practice, however, there has been no practical example of cooperation to be worthy of mention.

b. The increasing power of China

The increasing power of China has raised concerns in Russia and also among Western countries, especially the United States. By expanding its cooperation with Iran and India, Russia would be able to create a new regional balance of powers in the face of China. Moscow can even redefine the mode of cooperation among Iran, China, India and Russia in the face of the US hegemony. In other words, Russians are in a position to turn all the existing threats into opportunities.

At present, Russia is worried about increasing power of China and although both countries are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, they cannot put a cap on their mutual concerns.

Under these conditions, Russia can forge an effective cooperation with Iran in geopolitical areas. Such a geopolitical cooperation will be beneficial to Central Asian countries as well. It will also allow Russia to boost its influence and power in rivalry with the West and China.

It is also noteworthy that Central Asia and Caucasus are specific regions which does not allow Russians to regulate their policies there in a totally unilateral manner and without any kind of coordination and cooperation with other regional countries. It is evident that the time for unilateralism is long past.

Therefore, it will be in Russia’s own benefit to change its attitude in the 21st century and move toward increased cooperation with Iran, India, China and Afghanistan. In fact, increased cooperation among Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan is by no means in conflict with cooperation with other countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. It can even lead to the emergence of a brilliant model of cooperation. Just in the same way that the establishment of the European Union was a good means of bringing member states closer together in various fields and has allowed them to define common interests and shape a great trade and economic union among themselves, it can be also done for this region. The only requisite is for regional countries to give up unilateral approaches and take a more overarching approach to issues of importance.

4. Large-scale areas of cooperation between Iran and Russia

a. Turkmenistan, Iran's northern neighbor and a good pathway for expansion of regional cooperation

Turkmenistan’s Gazprom Company can engage in effective cooperation with the National Iranian Gas Company in this field. When it comes to existing potentials in the Caspian Sea region, the two countries can engage in multilateral cooperation in such fields as shipping. For example, facilities can be considered for Iranian passengers to travel to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Russia by sea. At present, ordinary passengers cannot take advantage of such facilities. In view of the high rate of travel of passenger and goods, if Russia cooperated with Iran in this regard, the two countries would have common economic interests in this field and the way would be paved for the establishment of a joint shipping service. Unfortunately, since Russia has not been so far willing to cooperate in this regard, there is no such service to be used by passengers.

b. Tajikistan, best option for expansion of relations

Tajikistan’s need to build more hydropower dams on its soil can be used as a good ground for cooperation between Iran and Russia. Uzbekistan has been always sensitive about construction of dams by Tajikistan and has lost no time to voice its protest to the latter country’s projects in this regard because construction of dams in Tajikistan will reduce water flow to its northern neighbor, Uzbekistan. However, it seems that if a joint gas supply project is defined between Russia and Iran, whose pipeline would pass through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, such a project could greatly boost cooperation among these regional countries. Such a project can even provide a good ground for understanding between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the fields of water and gas supply because Russia and Iran would be able to supply gas to Tajikistan while facilitating supply of water to Uzbekistan. Iranian and Russian specialists can also cooperate on this project. Russia, however, has so far refrained from allowing this to happen.

c. Kazakhstan and opportunities for cooperation

Kazakhstan has the longest border among other Central Asia countries along the shores of the Caspian Sea. Therefore, it has good potentials for running shipping lines in that sea and can be also used as a good route for the transfer of oil and gas reserves of the sea. Of course, there was some sort of energy swap in the region, but it came to a halt later due to international sanctions against Iran.

The two countries of Iran and Russia can cooperate in the field of transportation, both through the Central Asia and land transfer. At present, construction of a railroad connecting Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan seems to be a very good start. However, Russians have not been enthusiastic about this project because they think the project can be an obstacle to their efforts in this region and may finally reduce dependence of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan on the Russians in the field of transportation. Some articles wrote by Russian analysts have clearly noted that construction of such a railroad will reduce dependence of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan on Russia. However, they ignore the fact that Russia can also take advantage of this railroad and the project can boost transportation and increase exchange of goods among regional countries, thus benefiting Russian companies as well.

*A researcher, documentary producer, and expert on nuclear issues, Hassan Beheshtipour received his BA in Trade Economics from Tehran University. His research topics span from US and Russian foreign policy to the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.

Key Words: Russia, Central Asia, Threats, Opportunities, Iran, National Interests, Cultural Cooperation, Political and Security Cooperation, China, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Beheshtipour

Source: Fars News Agency
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

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