Farhad Atai

Central Asia as Viewed from Tehran: 1992-2001


The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 released the republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus into the world arena as independent states. The emergence of these republics drew the attention of the outside world and raised hopes for economic opportunities and political influence in the region.

Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a major concern in the West was that the Islamic Republic of Iran would be tempted to take advantage of the arising circumstances, and encourage Islamic movements and activities in Central Asia, leading to further destabilization of the region. Another concern was that during this crucial juncture when the Central Asian people were about to lay the foundation of their new independent states, the Islamic Republic might be used as model and, therefore, other “Islamic Republics” would appear in the region. Yet another long-term concern, though less elaborated and expressed, was the possible emergence of an Islamic block, hostile to the West, with a population of 300 million, that would spread from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean.

Iran is an oil-rich country that earned $14 billion from export of petroleum and gas. The government or the major revolutionary organizations still controlled the economy. The Iranian government emphasized the Islamic character of its population and hoped to foster increasingly better relations with the Islamic world. Iran has boarders with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in Central Asia, and with Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Caucasus.

As the region became accessible to the outside world, gradually the preoccupation with the Islamic threat from Iran reduced to a considerable extent. It soon became clear that the peoples of Central Asia, though Muslim, did not have any proclivities to follow Iran’s version of Islam. Islam had spread in that region from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries mainly by Sufis, who presented their understanding of the religion to Central Asia, one that differs from the interpretation preached by the Iranian religious leaders. Seventy years of communist rule had further left an impact on the peoples’ belief, making them even less inclined toward theocratic states.

Regional powers and immediate neighbors of the Central Asian countries also had their hopes and concerns. Interestingly, Russia, which had just lost political sovereignty over a vast part of its empire, did not seem to have any clear policy in the region in the immediate aftermath of its breakup. In fact, Central Asia was not among Russia’s priorities. The first time the Russian Foreign Minister visited Central Asia, was in April 1992, by which time the US Secretary of State had been to the area on official visits three times. Russia opened embassies in the region after Turkey, Iran, China, and the United States.[1]

Iran and the Central Asian States

After the Soviet collapse, the Iranian government, too, looked to Central Asia with interest. In November 1991, Foreign Minister Velayati visited the five republics and talked about the prospects for cooperation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Central Asian states. The Iranian view of the potential interests in the region proved as naive as other governments. Iran’s hopes and concerns were as follows:

  • A hope that with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the Muslim peoples of the region would follow Iran’s footsteps and turn their newly formed governments into Islamic republic
  • A concern that soon emerged was one with the security of Iran’s northern borders, as the civil war in Tajikistan broke out and the dispute in the Nogurno-Karabakh region between Azerbaijan and Armenia resulted in thousands of refugees at Iran’s northern borde In the spring of 1992, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for research and training, in his address to China’s Institute of International Relations, warned that “the emergence of a handful of undeveloped and poor states that continuously face the threat of rebellion and drought would severely affect the security and stability of the borders of the neighboring countries.”[2]

Interestingly, it seems that unlike others the Islamic Republic’s initial concern was not as much economic as it was cultural and religious. Iran’s perception of, and policy toward, Central Asia evolved over the following years. It went through various stages. The first stage can be characterized by the belief that the people of Central Asia would be inclined to go back to their roots and hopefully create their own Islamic states. In 1992, in an editorial in Central Asia and the Caucasus Review the Iranian Foreign Minister hinted at such a desire:

The true cultural identity in this region of the world is a combination of valuable Islamic principles and ancient national traditions amongst these peoples… With the rich history of this region in mind, we are determined to provide the means for Central Asia and the Caucasus to once again join the main current of world culture and civilization.[3]

It was assumed that this would be the natural consequence of the changing geopolitics of the region, rather than a result of any particular initiative by the Islamic Republic of Iran. In his speech to China’s Institute of International Affairs, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister explained:

With the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the region’s subsystem has been altered completely. The Middle Eastern subsystem was such that, politically and culturally, Iran stood at its periphery. That subsystem had basically an Arabic character, its main economic feature being the presence of huge oil reserves, a strategic commodity; whereas the recent developments have exited Iran from the Middle Eastern system and entered her into a new subsystem that includes the newly independent states of Central Asia and the Caucasus. The main feature of this subsystem, from economic and cultural point of view, is its being non-Arabic and lacking any strategic commodity at the international level, such as oil.[4]

This belief was greatly reinforced by an almost total lack of knowledge about the region, its emerging governments, and the wishes of is peoples. The reference by the Deputy Foreign Minister to a “lack of any commodity such as oil” in Central Asia and the Caucasus demonstrates the scope of the paucity of knowledge on the region among the Iranian officials at the time. With little insight into the nature of the developments in Central Asia, the Islamic government offered verbal support to trends and groups that were not necessarily in harmony with Iran’s interests. An example of this was the support offered to the government in Tajikistan that took power after independence. Though labeled Islamic, it was in fact an awkward coalition of Islamists and a group of intellectuals and academicians. The excesses carried out by that regime alienated a great number of Tajiks and brought to power the pro- Russian government in Dushanbe that had an anti-Islamic attitude and opposes Tajik nationalist tendencies. It later turned out that the actual support for the “Islamic regime” came from the Saudi government, whereas Iran’s involvement with that regime did not go beyond political statements and declarations.

Evolution of Iran’s View towards the Region

At this stage, many Iranians got the opportunity to visit Central Asia and the Caucasus, among them members of the revolutionary organizations, such as the Foundation for the Oppressed (Bonyad-e Mostaz’afan), and the Martyrs’ Foundation (Bonyad-e Shahid), as well as other government officials. There was a great deal of suspicion on the part of the authorities in those countries against Iranian nationals. It was often claimed that the Islamic republic of Iran was at the root of the civil war in Tajikistan and that Iran sought to insight Islamic resurgence in other republics such as Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. One may assume that perhaps it had been the wish of many revolutionaries within the Islam government to be involved in such activities. Occasionally arrests of individuals were also made, particularly in Azerbaijan. Apparently, none demonstrated any plot initiated by official government agencies in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The second stage came with the realization that the peoples of Central Asia, and especially their governments, were not enthusiastic about an Islamic state. This became increasingly apparent as diplomatic and commercial contacts between Iran and Central Asia developed.[5] Furthermore, the Russians – who still yield considerable political power in the region and see it as their own backyard – would not tolerate creation of such states in their former south.

Finally, the perception evolved into a realistic one according to which the priority in the region should be given to maintaining peace and security, with an emphasis on economic and cultural cooperation. This was reiterated by Foreign Minister Velayati in his address at the seminar on “Security and Foreign Policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus” in January 1996 in Tehran:

The Islamic Republic of Iran is convinced that her security lies in preservation of peace and tranquility in the region and it is in this context that her policies vis-à-vis the Persian Gulf, the neighboring countries, and Central Asia evolve.”[6]

A very important aspect of this policy was the recognition that Russia’s influence and interests in the region cannot be ignored. This is an important point worth elaborating. Having been isolated on the international scene, mainly because of the United States’ efforts and European acquiescence, Iran gradually tilted toward Russia – a former super power and still the major power in the region- for support. At the Iran-Russian Roundtable held in Moscow in October

1995, deputy foreign Minister Maleki spoke of “the down of a new era of greater cooperation and friendship” between the two countries. “The recent thrust of the Iran-Russian bilateral relations” he said, “though in an embryonic stage, channeled events toward the right direction…The road ahead seems stable and steady”. Referring to “Russia’s intransigence in face of international pressure and Iran’s insistence on maintaining her ‘special relations’ with Russia”, he noted that “Russia and Iran have rejected the groundless accusations of Washington, resisting the spread of unwarranted approaches on the international scene”.[7] This, it seems, has meant avoiding actions and comments that may annoy Moscow. Thus, the then president Hashemi Rafsanjani, addressing the conference on “Security and Foreign Policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus, held in Tehran in the summer of 1996, noted:

“Many of their needs are in Russia. Railroads, industries, communications, and their academic expertise is in Russia. (Outside) powers and governments should not attempt to create conflicts between them and Russia. We must try lest the sincerity between them and Russia disappears. The United States, for example, should not, for the sake of her own presence (in the region), think of severing their relations with Russia. Here is not the place for this sort of competition”.[8]

The Iranian government’s position on Bosnia-Herzegovina may also be an indication. Even though Russia was by far the most important backer of the Serbs, Iran decided to turn a blind eye on Moscow and blamed the US government as the main culprit in the Bosnian tragedy. Iran’s position on Chechenia was yet another example. Contrary to Cases such as Palestine, where Tehran felt it a religious duty to help its Moslem brethren, It decided that the case in Chechnya was entirely a domestic matter that was to be dealt with by the Russian government itself.

The collapse of the Soviet Union placed Iran in a unique and privileged strategic position. This was due to various factors, the most important of which were the following:

Immediately after the Soviet collapse, it was believed that the Central Asia-Caspian region was one of the world’s richest regions in oil and gas reserves. The Caspian region with 57.1 trillion cubic meters of gas (excluding that of Russia), was estimated to have the richest reserves in the world and with 59.2 billion barrels of oil, it had the third largest oil reserves on the globe, after the Persian Gulf and Siberia.[9]

The newly independent states of Central Asia are land-locked with no access to open seas. Since gaining independence, they had to depend on their neighbors for transporting goods and commodities to and from the outside world. Iran was the bridge linking the world’s two largest oil and gas reserves – the Persian Gulf and the Central Asia-Caspian regions. With 2000 miles of shore on the Persian Gulf, Iran is the shortest route for transportation of oil and gas from the Central Asia-Caspian region to Japan, and the far east.

Given Iran’s geographical position vis-à-vis central Asia and the Caucasus, early on after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran’s emphasis in economic projects was on transit facilities and land routes. In his first visit to the region in November 1991, Foreign Minister Velayati and the Turkmen officials talked about the construction of a railroad that would link Central Asia to the network of Iranian railroads and to the port of Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf. One hundred and sixty eight kilometers of rail was laid from Fariman near the northern city of Mashad to Sarakhs on the Turkmenistan border, and from there 130 kilometers of railroad was constructed by the Turkmen linking Sarakhs to Niazov station inside Turkmenistan. The project that was officially inaugurated by the presidents of the two countries in May 1996, had a capacity of transporting 2 million tons of cargo and 500 thousand passengers in its first phase.[10]

Tajikistan, a Persian-speaking state, received more attention from Iran than the other states. Despite the devastating civil war and Tajikistan’s relatively small potential in terms of economic opportunity for Iran, official visits, cultural exchanges and cooperation in education have been continuing between the two states. Furthermore, as a mediator between the two sides in Tajikistan’s civil war, Iran managed to secure the respect of Tajik officials. In 1992, Iran sent a group of school teachers to Dushanbe to help their Tajik counterparts develop books written in Arabic alphabet. In the following year Iran undertook to provide textbooks in Persian alphabet for the first and second grades. In the area of education Iran offered its Central Asian neighbors courses for the training of diplomats. The Center for Training of Diplomats was created in the Foreign Ministry, where selected young people from the republics were trained.

Compared to the other states in Central Asia, Iran’s economic relations with Turkmenistan were more extensive. In fact, there were quite a few exchanges of official delegations between Iran and Turkmenistan. By the end of 1996, the presidents of the two countries had officially met fourteen times and in a period of five years, over 100 accords were signed between the two countries on various cultural, economic, and commercial subjects. Iran offered a $50 million credit to Turkmenistan, and according to official figures, the volume of trade between the two rose from $35.1 million in 1992 to $68 million in 1993.[11]

Despite long historical, political, and cultural links, and considerable potential for cooperation, Uzbekistan was least receptive to Iran’s overtures in Central Asia. This stemmed mainly from a deep-rooted suspicion on the part of Uzbekistan’s government toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. The government of Uzbekistan’s concern was based on both religious and nationalistic considerations. The religious concern was better known to the outside world, as the Iranian government had a reputation for supporting Islamic radicalism. The nationalistic concern, however, is less understood. It had to do with the large Persian speaking Tajik minority in Uzbekistan. For centuries the major political and cultural centers such as Samarkand and Bukhara in today’s Uzbekistan were important cities of the Persian Empire. It was only in the 1930s when Stalin created distinct republic based on the ethnic character of each region, for political considerations, gave the major Tajik inhabited cities such as Samarkand and Bukhara to the republic of Uzbekistan. As a result, millions of Tajiks are now living under Uzbek sovereignty. Of the twenty-four million population of Uzbekistan at the time, Tajik nationalists claimed over ten million were Tajiks. One may assume that the true figure is less than this, and there did not seem to be any meaningful movement for independence; nevertheless, it kept the Uzbek government concerned lest Iran be tempted to insight such tendencies among Uzbekistan’s Tajik population.

Thus, Uzbekistan’s government consistently tried to stay away from Iran. Officials of the two countries, except on a few occasions, only met in the framework of the regional organization ECO, of which both countries are member. Even in academic and cultural gatherings in Iran, attended by all other Central Asian states, the Uzbeks were usually absent. And visa applications by Iranian nationals, even for cultural and academic purposes, were usually turned down.

Iran faced several obstacles, both internal and external, in forging a long-term relationship with the Central Asian states. Internally, these obstacles were the following:

  • An absence of modern means in the execution of Iran’s policies in the regi The Islamic Republic’s major tool for gaining influence in Central Asia in those years was sending books in Persian script to the region – and that mainly to Tajikistan – even though very few people in Central Asia can read any script other than Cyrillic. Turkey, during the same period, broadcast satellite programs daily all over Central Asia. (Only later, in the 2000s, did Iran start to broadcast programs via satellite to the outside world, including Central Asia)
  • The absence of the private sector in Iran’s economic and commercial dealings with Central Asia. A private sector did exist in Ira However, individuals with significant capital shunned long-term investments in Iran, let alone in Central Asia. Iranian entrepreneurs in Central Asia were mainly involved in small cross-border trade. They were mainly engaged in unhealthy practices, dumping defective goods only for short-term profit, and hence damaged Iran’s reputation in the region.[12] A good deal of Iran’s commercial activities was handled by government organizations and the foundations created after the revolution from confiscated enterprises. They neither had the incentive nor the expertise necessary for an aggressive commercial and economic presence overseas. An Iranian diplomat stationed in Central Asia, comparing the Turkish section in the main department store in town with the one that belonged to the Islamic Republic, said whereas Turkish goods were laid out and presented in an attractive manner, Iran’s section looked more like a warehouse with lots of goods on top of each other.[13]

There were also external factors that hampered Iran’s efforts in achieving its objectives in the region, the most important of which was political antagonism with the United States. The United States used its power and influence against Iran, such as blocking Iran’s initiatives in the Nogurno-Karabakh dispute and blocking the National Iranian Oil Company’s membership in the Azerbaijani oil consortium, despite Iran’s legitimate and logical right to be a partner in the enterprise.

Between 1992 and 1995 alone more than 60 visits by the heads of states, and ministers took place between Iran and the Central Asian countries in which at least one memorandum of understanding, agreement, or contract was signed in economic, trade, cultural, and scientific fields. The outcome of such an intense diplomatic activity was minimal; many of them did not move beyond the signing ceremonies. Thus, in the period under discussion, Tehran’s view of Central Asia evolved. But despite tremendous potential, Iran’s level of influence in the region remained relatively small during the 1990s.


[1] See G. Bondarevsky and P. Ferdinand. “Russian Foreign Policy and Central Asia”, The New States of Central Asia and Their Neighbors. Peter Ferdinand (ed.). London, 1994 , pp. 40-41.

[2] The Deputy Foreign Minister for Training and Research, Abbas Maleki’s address to China’s Institute of International Affairs in June 1992, “Ravabet-e Iran va Jomhuriha-ye Asiya-ye Markazi” (Iran’s Relations with the Republics of Central Asia), Central Asia and the Caucasus Review(MAMQ,), Vol. 1, No. 1(Summer 1992), p. 5.

[3] Ibid. p.4.

[4] Ibid. pp. 9-10. Apparently, he had not yet been aware of the huge gas reserves under Turkmenistan and the oil reserves in Kazakhstan and Azerbayjan.

[5] Extensive interviews during six weeks of stay for a related project in Central Asia in the Autumn of 1994 clearly demonstrated this to the author. Also see N. Lubin, “Islam and Ethnic Identity in Central Asia: A View from Below”, in Y. Ro’i (ed.), Muslim Eurasia: Conflicting Legacies. London, 1995.

[6] The Inaugural speech by Dr. A.A. Velayati at the “Seminar on Security and Foreign Policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus”, held at I.P.I.S., Tehran, January 14-16, 1996. For the text of the speech see ‘The Constructive Role of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Maintaining Regional Security’, Amu Darya, Vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 1183-189.

[7] Abbas Maleki, addressing the Irano-Russian Roundtable, October 4-5, 1995, in Moscow. In an obvious reference to the United States, he correctly observed” In the so-called “new world order’, some states have gone as far as redefining the interests of nations and entire continents in terms of their own; for instance, they place the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean, and even the Central Asian states within their ‘security sphere’”. For the text of the speech see ‘The Prospects of Iran-Russian Relations till the Year 2000’, Amu Darya, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 191-199.

[8] President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s address to the “Conference on Security and Foreign Policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus”, held at I.P.I.S., Tehran, January 13-15, 1995. See “Jomhuri-ye Eslami-ye Iran va Keshvarha-ye Jadid ol- Bonyad” (The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Newly Founded States), Central Asia and the Caucasus Review(MMAMQ), Vol. 5, No. 13(Spring 1996), p. 9.

[9] International Energy Agency’s report (Sept. 1993), These figures were later revised. It turned out that only 5% of the world’s energy reserves were in that region.

[10] “Naqsh-e Mantaqa’i-e Iran ”, Central Asia and the Caucasus Review(MMAMQ), Vol. 5, No 16 (Winter 1996), pp. 69-70.

[11] Ibid., p. 69.

[12] Personal interview with Mr. Mojtahed Shabestari, the former ambasador of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Tajikestan, Oct. 31, 1998.

[13] Personal interview with M. Rouzbehani, Deputy Director of the Second Bureau in charge of the CIS. Oct. 31, 1998.