Iran's President Hassan Rouhani (R) and Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov walk together during an official welcoming ceremony at Sa'dabat Palace in Tehran, Iran on November 22, 2015
The relations between Iran and Turkmenistan in recent times have experienced periodic ups and downs. The opening of the Kazakhstan- Turkmenistan- Iran railway (920 km) in 2014 as the North-South Rail Corridor along the eastern side of the Caspian Sea, which almost 700 kilometers of it is located in the territory of Turkmenistan, has created high hopes for the further development of cooperation between Iran and this northern neighbor. Various exhibitions were held with the aim of introducing Iranian economic and service capacities in Turkmenistan, and this country was also hosted by Iran in some of its exhibitions. Berdimuhamedov’s, the Turkmen President, meeting with the Supreme Leader and President of Iran has also reaffirmed the importance of relations between the two countries. The invitation to the Iranian Minister of Defense and the study of opportunities for defense cooperation in the fight against terrorism are also considered as other positive changes in the interactions between Iran and Turkmenistan. However, these examples do not indicate all aspects of the relationship between the two countries, and some of the challenges facing their relations should be also mentioned here.
The emergence of some disagreements over the Caspian Sea, creating problems for transit routes and the sudden interruption in exporting gas to Iran, which caused limited tensions in the relations between the two countries, the disruption of the freight transport system at the borders of Bajgiran, Incheboron and other common borders and, finally, creating problems for residents of Iranian provinces consuming the gas exported from Turkmenistan, and even creating difficulties for the Iranian government in providing gas to these areas, respectively, are examples that cannot be ignored in examining the course of relations between Iran and Turkmenistan in recent times. Nevertheless, during the same period, Turkmenistan has played the largest role in foreign trade relations between Iran and Central Asia.
The study of the course of the 10-year trade between Iran and Turkmenistan during 2005- 2015 shows that Iran’s exports to this country have experienced a significant rising growth rate till 2014, and they have exceeded imports since 2009, and ultimately they have led to a positive trade balance created for Iran up to now. Regardless of the fall in exports in 2015, Turkmenistan can be considered as a country that the Iranian exports flow to it has enjoyed a steady growth over the last decade.
The relations between Iran and Turkmenistan have not been unaffected by regional and international dynamics. At the regional level, the most important factor is perhaps the situation of Afghanistan. In addition, relations between the countries of Central Asia and the existing economic and security mechanisms in the region have also been influential in this regard. The security situation in Afghanistan and the developments related to the rise and fall of extremist and terrorist movements in the country have somehow affected the quality of relations between Turkmenistan and Iran, since Afghanistan is considered as one of the southern trade routes for Turkmenistan. Redefining the traditional routes of trade relations in the region, including the Tajik and Uzbek routes, also influences Turkmenistan’s foreign trade security, which in general affects Iran’s geopolitical increasing or decreasing weight as a country which provides a safe margin for the foreign trade with this northeastern neighbor. At the international level, the development of China’s Asian strategy and its special approach to the Central Asian region, especially in the area of providing energy needs and becoming the largest purchaser of hydrocarbon resources of these countries in Central Asia, on the one hand, and the tangible presence of the United States in the form of mechanisms such as 5+1 (the five countries of Central Asia plus America), on the other hand, all contribute to the limitations of the role played by Iran in this region and the definition of Iran’s position in the perspective of the major strategies of these countries. Russia’s resurgence for having a more effective presence in Central Asia, and even playing a role in the developments in Afghanistan are other important factors that cannot be ignored.
In spite of these challenges, the recent visit of Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to Ashgabat (April 2017) is considered important. Meeting of the two countries’ officials on the sidelines of the ECO Summit in Islamabad (March 2017), re-inviting Iran’s economic sectors to participate in the Turkmen exhibitions, increasing the number of calls between the authorities of the two countries and expressing the interest of their leaders to revive and expand ties between the two neighbors, all promise that a new chapter is opening in bilateral relations between Iran and Turkmenistan. But what is the reason for these changes in Turkmenistan’s foreign policy behavior and what are the causes of the periodic ups and downs in its behavior, especially in relation to Iran?
What Turkmenistan was mostly afraid of in the years after gaining its independence was the continued Russian domination and Moscow’s decisive role in Turkmenistan’s economic contribution. Thus, diversifying energy transfer routes and reducing the dependence on the Russian routes were at the top of the agenda of Turkmenistan. The development of Iran’s route (Korpeye-Kurd Koi) in the 1990s was an attempt to operationalize the Trans-Caspian routes and the TAPI routes in this regard. But until nearly two decades after Turkmenistan’s independence and the construction of the eastern route toward China, the shadow of dependence on the Russian routes still prevailed. With the entry of China to this field, the heavy dependence on Russia decreased, but after a while China itself provoked fears among the leaders of the region. This time, creating new plans to reduce the decisive role of the Chinese routes has created new concerns for these countries, especially for Turkmenistan. Then more specific efforts were made to operationalize the TAPI project and the western route from the Caspian Sea. But these routes have also had their own problems. The TAPI project is faced with high insecurity in Afghanistan and the instability in Pakistani-Indian relations, and the Trans-Caspian route not only influences the status of the Caspian Sea legal regime and the relations among powers in the South Caucasus, but also faces technical-engineering problems as well as environmental problems for the Caspian Sea. The Russian route is still undesirable, and it seems that Russia has also no interest in reviving this part of its relationship with the Turkmens. In this situation, the only easy option for Turkmenistan is still the Iranian route, which, with its geo-economic advantages and its specific geopolitical features, is justified in terms of providing the security of energy export, and it cannot be ignored in terms of economic rationality.
In another perspective, it is said that there are currently 87 projects ongoing in Turkmenistan with the participation and investment of Iranians. About 30 formally registered Iranian companies are active in Turkmenistan, and the volume of trade between the two countries reached $1.7 billion in 2016 (although this figure is probably considered without the calculation of gas and oil exchanges, because according to other estimates, this figure, including all the exchanged items between the two countries, has been also announced to amount to $3.7 billion).
Nevertheless, the recent attempts of Turkmenistan to restore relations and expand political and economic interactions with Iran not only show the initiative of the Iranian foreign policy organization and the relative efficiency of regional policy in the northeastern region, but also are affected by the situation of Turkmenistan’s geopolitical inevitability and the importance of the issue of security of energy exports for this country. Regardless of the occasionally unpredictable behavior of this northeastern neighbor, it seems that Turkmenistan will never be able to ignore the advantages offered by Iran, and remain indifferent for a long time to its unchanging geography. This geopolitical inevitability will be reflected not only in energy export and transit routes, but also in security and law enforcement cooperation, such as counterterrorism and the fight against drug trafficking and other organized crimes. No need to mention that this situation will provide new opportunities for the foreign and regional policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Behrouz Ghezel, a PhD candidate in Central Asia and Caucasus Studies at University of Tehran, is the fellow at IRAS.
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