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Lidiya Parkhomchik: Modification of Iran’s Foreign Policy Orientation in Central Asia

“The recent change in Iranian leadership, namely the victory of Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 presidential elections as well as the return of reformers and allies of the President to the Iranian parliament in the first half of 2016, denoted the beginning of the implementation of new approaches to the external and internal policy in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” – Kazakhstani expert Lidiya Parkhomchik outlines Iran’s foreign policy strategy in Central Asia in this cabar.asia exclusive.


The recent change in Iranian leadership, namely the victory of Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 presidential elections as well as the return of reformers and allies of the President to the Iranian parliament in the first half of 2016[1], marked the beginning of a new approach to both domestic and foreign policy in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

 The agreement reached with the P5+1 and the European Union regarding the Iranian nuclear issue could be considered the clearest example of changes in Iran’s political and economic orientation.  After a decade of unsuccessful negotiations, the parties finally reached an agreement, which can be considered, without exaggeration, a breakthrough.  Tehran has agreed in principle to freeze its nuclear program in return for an easing of the sanctions regime.

 However, this change in the tone of the negotiation process surrounding the Iranian “nuclear case” does not mean that the new administration has fundamentally changed the country’s foreign policy with regards to its neighbors in the region, in particular the governments of Central Asia.  In undertaking its regional policy regarding the Central Asian states, Iran will seek to maintain its previous course that, regardless of the various changes made, has maintained its primary aim: the formation of a stably developing region, whose destabilization would directly impact the political and economic situation within Iran itself.

The Ideological Basis of Central Asian Policy

Back in the 1990s, the Iranian government openly demonstrated that commercial interests would not play a dominant role in its efforts to build relationships with the newly-independent Central Asian republics.  Without a doubt, the countries in this region were deeply interested in developing primarily economic ties with Iran.  However, Tehran for obvious reasons paid particular attention to the cultural aspects of its Central Asian policy, relying on the more effective mechanisms now commonly referred to as “soft power” with appeals to a common historical heritage and cultural affinity.  It is important to stress that the Islamic factor, the basis of Iran’s chosen strategy for expanding its influence in the region, acts mainly as a background for the dissemination and promotion of monuments to Iranian cultural traditions.[2][3]  It is thus undeniable that Iran, in setting out its foreign policy concept for relations with the Central Asian states, conducted a deep analysis of cultural cooperation with the region, thereby creating an ideological basis for the subsequent adoption of its positions in Central Asia.   Although the concept of historical affinity offered by Iran has not been sufficiently realized in Central Asia for various objective reasons, the fact that it even exists speaks to the Iran’s long-term interests in the region.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that Tehran’s policy of cultural unity has been most effective in Tajikistan, which historically has leaned towards the Persian-speaking world.  First and foremost, this is due to the country’s common linguistic, historical, cultural and traditional ties with Tehran.  Under these circumstances, it is natural that Iran is one of the Tajik economy’s leading foreign investors, second only to China.  The Iranians have undertaken and continue to pursue a series of massive projects in Tajikistan including the Sangtuda-2 Hydropower Plant (HPP), the Istiqlol tunnel, the Shurabad HPP, as well as the Rogun-Mazari, Sharif-Herat-Mashhad power lines among other projects.

However, Tajikistan remains a homogenous part of Central Asia and, as such, is tied to the region and the larger post-Soviet space, which significantly limits the potential opportunities for Tajikistan’s integration into the Iranian world.[4]

Setting a Course Towards Pragmatism

The first stage in modifying the Central Asian vector of Iranian foreign policy was directly related to the Iranian government’s comprehensive foreign policy review initiated by Sayyid Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president elected in 1997.   The acceleration in building and improving relations with the West allowed Tehran to reevaluate its Central Asian policy from a new and increasingly more pragmatic angle.  Largely maintaining its emphasis on developing cultural cooperation, the Iranian government has begun to more precisely define its economic relationship with the countries in the region.

 Perhaps the most revealing indicator of this has been the speed of developments in the relationship between Iran and Turkmenistan.  In 1998, with assistance from Iran, the Korpeje–Kordkuy pipeline was brought online, allowing Ashgabat to export 8 billion cubic meters of Turkmen natural gas annually.  This relatively small volume in supply obscures the fact that this pipeline became the first alternative route for Central Asian hydrocarbons that does not transit through Russian territory.  It should be noted that a second pipeline for delivering Turkmen gas to Iran’s northern provinces, specifically the Dovletabad–Serakhs–Hangeran pipeline, went online in 2010 and opened the possibility of increasing gas exports to Iran to 20 billion cubic meters a year.   Both sides have maintained trade in energy in the arsenal of their bilateral relations, even though the average amount of Turkmen hydrocarbon exports has not risen above the 10 billion mark for the past 5 years, and at certain points negotiations took place regarding a cessation of cooperation in this field.

The Consequences of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s International Isolation

2005 marked the next stage in Iran’s modification of their Central Asian policy.  This transformation was brought on, as before, by another change in Iranian political leadership with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad winning the Presidency and the Conservative camp strengthening its position in the Parliament.   Rapidly deteriorating relations with the West as well as the imposition of a series of both multilateral and unilateral sanctions led to the country’s geopolitical and economic isolation, depriving it of the ability to develop or even maintain the performance of previously established trading arrangements.   To reinforce this thesis one need only to recall the situation surrounding oil swaps from Kazakhstan to Iran.  Until 2010 up to 5 million tons of Kazakh oil left Kazakhstan through the Aktau port and crossed the Caspian Sea to Iran as a part of an oil swap.  However, under pressure from a UN Security Council Resolution related to the Iranian nuclear program as well as American and European sanctions, this practice was ended, significantly impacting the amount of trade between the two countries.  In 2008 this trade had risen to over $2 billion, but in 2015 it fell to $650 million, $570 of which stemmed from Kazakhstani exports.

Obviously, until recently, regional cooperation that had, more or less, remained friendly and free of conflict was viewed by Tehran as an opportunity to break its geopolitical blockade, demonstrating to the Western bloc Tehran’s ability to minimize the consequences of economic sanctions levied against it.

However it must be admitted that the Central Asian vector of Iran’s foreign policy did not become a breakthrough as Iran itself was forced to pursue its Central Asian policy with a recognition of the fact that the American military presence in the region grew after the fall of 2001 due to the war in Afghanistan.  Additionally, in the 2010s the region once again became the object of Russian attention when Central Asia fell back into the orbit of Russia’s geopolitical interests as an area of high-priority. However, Iran’s Central Asia policy in the post-Soviet period can be characterized overall as reasonably highly balanced.[5]

 The New Silk Road

This assertion is not contradicted by the most recent changes to Iran’s vision for developing cooperation with Central Asia, in which China has played a major role.  The Iranian Government under the direction of President Rouhani drafted an updated regional concept, in which Iran seeks to expand its influence in neighboring regions, including Central Asia, with an aim to overcome existing obstacles and to seek an increase in the potential of both parties in terms of trade, investment, and mutual influence.[6]  As such, this strategy must emphasize the undertaking of large infrastructure projects, such as the Chinese-led Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB).  This initiative is fully in keeping with Tehran’s efforts to improve road and rail linkages with Central Asia and gain access to the Chinese market.

It should be noted that the idea of creating a Trans-Asian Railroad connecting Europe with the Middle East, Far East, India and Southeast Asia with Iran acting as a support pillar was first proposed by Iranian President Rafsanjani in the early 1990s.  To realize this project, Iran opened the Bafq-Bender-Abbas railway in 1995 and completed construction on the Mashhad-Serakhs-Tajan railway, opening the way for the transit of goods from Central Asia to the ports of the Persian Gulf.[7]

As such, Iran has found fertile ground for development in the Chinese initiative, which sees profitability in projects like the opening of the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway branch as well as the beginning of the implementation of the Ashgabat Agreement on creating an Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran-Oman-Qatar transport and transit corridor.  Echoing Tehran’s earlier prioritization of the globalization of transportation infrastructure, the SREB offers Iran the possibility to become a transportation and logistics hub at the intersection of international transit routes.

Of course, the emergence of China as an initiator of this global economic project does not guarantee the implementation of Iran’s infrastructure strategy in its original form.  Regardless of the agreement reached to phase out sanctions and restore its share of the oil market by 80%, the Iranian economy is in a difficult, if not desperate, position.  Without diving into the details and particulars of the country’s economic condition, it is obvious that Tehran is in dire need of foreign investment to stimulate Iranian economic development in certain key sectors.  Under current circumstances, realizing large-scale infrastructure projects could be significantly hampered due to a lack of needed financing and various geopolitical circumstances.

A Few Conclusions

In conclusion, it must be noted that, in building relationships with the Central Asian states, the Islamic Republic of Iran for all intents and purposes has ruled out the export of a so-called  “Islamic Revolution” to the region, recognizing the folly of an idea that would illicit open opposition from the secular governments of the Central Asian states.   Without questioning the importance of the Central Asian states to fully implement its regional policy, Iran will pursue a policy focused on strengthening its economic position in the region.  Naturally, a series of geopolitical and economic “shocks” in Iran has led to a situation in which concrete mechanisms for cooperation in line with the Central Asian vector of Iran’s foreign policy is still in the development phase.  However, regardless of who is in power in Iran, be they reformers or conservatives, relations with Central Asia will more than likely maintain its current trajectory of gradually strengthening economic, trade, and cultural cooperation.

This approach has allowed Iran to occupy a defined place in the constellation of foreign policy priorities of the Central Asian states, but due to various objective circumstances an Iranian vector will not figure as a high priority for these governments in the mid-term.


[1] As a result of two rounds of national legislative elections held in Iran in February and April 2016, supporters of the moderate approach of Iranian President Rouhani included in the so-called “List of Hope” won 95 seats in the first round and 38 in the second.  Candidates closer to the conservatives won 103 and 18 seats in the first and second rounds respectively. A portion of the mandates went to independent candidates and representatives of minority groups.  There are a total of 290 seats in the national parliament.

[2] Speaking mainly of Persian classical poetry, Quranic texts in Farsi, etc.

[3] Klyashtorina, V. “The Evolution of the Role of Culture in the Modernization Process of Iran and the Region (Эволюция роли культуры в процессе модернизации Ирана и стран региона).” from Osobennosti modernizatsii na musul’manskom Vostoke, 1997. pp 161-164.

[4] Laumulin, M. “Central Asia and Pax Iranica: Cooperation and Mutual Influence (Центральная Азия и Pax Iranica: взаимодействие и взаимовлияние).” Tsentral’naya Azia i Kavkaz. 2014 №2, p 126.

[5] Knyazev, A. “Iran’s Regional Strategy in Central Asia – Evolution and Priorities (Региональная стратегия Ирана в Центральной Азии – эволюция и приоритеты).” Informatsionno-analiticheskii tsentr. 26 March 2008. Accessed on 24 August 2016. http://ia-centr.ru/expert/963/

[6] Asanov, A. “Iran’s New Policy in Central Asia (Новая политика Ирана в Центральной Азии).” Polit-Asia. 10 October 2014. Accessed on 24 August 2016. http://polit-asia.kz/politika/348

[7] Varnavskii, D. “Iran and the Central Asian States: The Genesis, State and Perspectives for Cooperation (Иран и государства Центральной Азии: генезис, состояние и перспективы сотрудничества).” Tsentral’naya Azia i Kavkaz. 2008 №2, p 150.

Author: Lidiya Parkhomchik, Senior Researcher, Eurasian Research Institute (Almaty, Kazakhstan)

The views of the author may not coincide with the position of cabar.asia