Iran has, for the past 25 years, sought to build its relations with Central Asia and has often cited its historical connection as a basis for developing relations. Perhaps, more pressing for the Islamic Republic, however, has been the desire to capitalize on relationships that do not have the historical baggage that has traditionally hampered relations with Western powers, namely the United States. In doing so, Iran has sought to demonstrate its capability as a rational and reliable international partner for states in the region and, certainly, until very recently, challenge US-led efforts at containing Iran’s influence. To this end, Iran has historically sought to promote a strongly regionalist agenda in Central Asia, which has met with limited success thus far. If the Middle East is seen (by those in the Western media at least) as the place of Iranian misadventure, then Central Asia is the place where the Islamic Republic shows its pragmatic streak. In that contest, Hassan Beheshtipour, senior fellow at IRAS, shared his views and ideas with Central Asia Analytical Network (in Russian) on different issues regarding the region and beyond. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What is your opinion on Iran’s current policy to Central Asia? Is the region less important to Rouhani Administration than his predecessor’s?
“Central Asia is not the top priority for Iran, because it is currently involved in the Middle East. Iran searches for its long-term interests in West Asia. However, there is a significant difference between the policy of Ahmadinejad’s administration and that of Rouhani’s. Ahmadinejad was faced with a large sanction by the West, which was why he preferred to look at Central Asian countries as a gateway to get out of isolation. But after the Iranian nuclear deal (the JCPOA), Rouhani’s administration was able to get out of the pressure of sanctions, and that is why he focused his attention, after China and Russia, on rebuilding the Iranian damaged relations with the EU, Japan, South Korea and East Asia. In this context, Central Asia and the Caucasus region are still considered the next priorities for Iran.”
What is important to Iran in Central Asia: politics, economy or culture and religion?
“In its relations with the five Central Asian countries, the first priority of Iran seems to be the expansion of its economic cooperation with them, because Iran believes that when the interests of the countries of the region are interlinked, many problems can be solved, provided that these interests are mutual. The reason lies in the fact that the economic cooperation remains stable only in a situation where the interests of both parties are secured.
“To achieve such a goal, Iran takes advantage of its common history and culture with the countries of the region, and sees them as a suitable ground for establishing a platform for bilateral and/or multilateral economic and political cooperation with these countries. In fact, the strengthening and consolidation of cultural ties between Iran and the five countries of the region through the cooperation of their elites are considered to be the strategic policy of Iran in Central Asia.
“But due to the American pressure on the countries of the region and the emphasis on the issue that Iran should not take part in any cooperative project in the region, on the one hand, and the nature of ideological behavior of the Iranian government, on the other hand, lead the leaders of the region to engage in any cultural, economic, and political cooperation with Iran with caution.
“Although the Islam Iran is pursuing is a moderate and progressive Islam, and it highly facilitates to have the extremist groups in the region, especially those in the Fergana Valley, under the control, due to the secularist trends of the governments of the five Central Asian countries, in practice, they are always treating the relationship with Iran with caution, and they will probably do so in the future as well.”
Some accuse Iran of soft propagation of Shiism within the Central Asian’s Sunnis. Are these accusations justified or it is just a part of Saudi Arabia propaganda against Iran?
“Iran is willing to have Shiite Islam prevalent among the Sunnis. This is a fact, but there is a fundamental difference between the legal promotion of a moderate Islamic thought that promotes the tolerance of other opinions among Muslims, and the promotion of the Taliban thoughts in Afghanistan, or the ISIS thoughts in Syria and Iraq. It should be said that what the Saudi propaganda promotes with the help of the Western media on Shiaphobia and Iranophobia is not true. They accuse Iran for attempting to convert the Sunnis to Shiites, while they are themselves investing millions of dollars for promoting Wahhabism in the region among Sunni followers of the Hanafi jurisprudence in Central Asia. The fact that the governments in the region receive the money from Saudi Arabia shows that they are either indifferent or negligent to the dangers of spreading the Takfiri-Wahhabi trends in the region.
“What Iran promotes in Central Asia is the Shiite perception of Islam without creating a conflict with and opposing the thoughts of the Sunni followers.”
Why Saudi Arabia, and not Russia, the US and even China, is Iran’s main rival in Central Asia?
“Saudi Arabia claims that it has the leadership over the Islamic world, and Iran is the only country that seriously challenges this leadership. Iran and Saudi Arabia compete with each other for expanding their scope of influence in the Islamic world, and since all the five Central Asian countries have a Muslim majority, for Saudi Arabia, Central Asia is also considered as one of its competitive scenes against Iran, while Iran is competing with Turkey, the United States, China, India and Russia in Central Asia. Iran does not pursue religious goals in this region, but seeks to expand regional cooperation in the fields of economics, culture, confronting extremism and terrorism and combating the production and distribution of drugs which are the main subjects of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
“But Saudi Arabia is focusing its activities on promoting Wahhabi ideas in the region, because it has nothing else to offer, except financial aid. Therefore, by promoting Wahhabism, this country pursues its policy in the region. In order to achieve this goal, it is willing to spend a considerable amount of money - just as this country constructs the mosque and religious seminaries, it also finances economic infrastructure projects.”
In the past, Iran is among the main supporters of the Tajik government’s opposition and it has vital role in peace building there. However, Tajikistan announced Islamic Renaissance Party ban in 2015. A key speech was delivered from the leader of the Party in Tehran in December 2016. Is Iran separating its path from that of Tajikistan?
“First of all, in the course of Tajikistan’s peace talks, Iran had good relations with both the government in Dushanbe and the opposition groups against Emomali Rahmon. His opposition coalition was a combination of Islamist, nationalist and even secular forces. Leaders such as the late Seyed Abdullah Noori, Turajonzoda, the late Hemmatzadeh and Daulat Osman were from Islamist forces of coalition, and people like the late Taher Abdul Jabbar, the leader of the National Resurrection Party, and Abdullah Zadeh, leader of the Great Ariana Party, and Shadman Yousef, leader of the Democratic Party, were considered the nationalist leaders. People such as Sattarzadeh, Khodanazarov and Bazar Saber were also pro-Western secularists.
“Being aware of the different tendencies of all opposition forces in Tajikistan, Iran worked with them all for making peace in the country, and the efforts of Iran and Russia to establish peace came to fruition after five years of civil war in Tajikistan.
“After the end of the civil war, when President Rahmon could consolidate his power in Dushanbe, he began to eliminate the moderate forces, and provide the ground for the growth of radical tendencies, including Islamist and non-religious tendencies, in Tajikistan.
“Therefore, the issue of Mr. Kabiri’s visit to Tehran, which has been carried out several time before, is just an excuse, and President Rahmon is seeking to receive more financial assistance from Saudi Arabia, and he is trying to eliminate his opponents in the name of the fight against terrorism. This should be mentioned, however, that after about 25 years of unquestioning rule, he is going to transfer presidential power to his son, Rostam. Iran is simultaneously working with the current government of Tajikistan and with the opposition forces, since Iran neither wants nor can make one of them a victim because of the other.”
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