Iran’s New Pivot to Central Asia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 60

Tajik president Emomali Rahmon and Iranian Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli (Source: Khovar)

High-ranking officials from Iran and Tajikistan made a total of three visits to Dushanbe and Tehran, respectively, in less than two months, a significant sign that after years of frosty relations, diplomatic ties are finally improving (Khovar, February 23, March 29, April 5). Even more such bilateral visits are rumored for the near future. At the same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recently concluded a grand tour (April 5–8) of the remaining four Central Asian republics (Irna, April 5), while other foreign ministry officials were in Vienna negotiating with the P4+1 (United Kingdom, France, Russia and China plus Germany) for keeping alive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear program (Irna, April 7). This renewed focus on Central Asia may be considered a new direction in Tehran’s foreign policy toward the region.

The “Look East” policy has become the core idea of Iran’s post-JCPOA approach to international relations. And Tehran considers Central Asia a “bridge region” between Iran and the East. During the previous seven years, Iran’s relations with Central Asia were largely stagnant, and in some cases even declined. Thus, it is noteworthy that, in the final months of President Hassan Rouhani’s administration (elections are scheduled for June 18, 2021), so much special attention is being devoted to Central Asia.

Among the former Soviet Central Asian republics, Tajikistan has experienced the most critical intensification of relations with Iran. The process of rebuilding bilateral ties began in 2019 but, predictably, hit some rough patches early on (see EDM, July 10, 2019). Nonetheless, after a diplomatic scuffle, Iran’s Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli finally visited Dushanbe in mid-February 2021 (Khovar, February 23)—effectively a renewed starting point for the ongoing thaw between the two Persian-speaking nations. One month later, the Iranian foreign minister left for Dushanbe to attend the Heart of Asia Conference (Khovar, March 29). And only a week after that, on April 6, Tajikistani Defense Minister Shirali Mirzo visited Tehran—the first top-level security official from Dushanbe to formally visit Iran in five years. With the recent uptick in border tensions with Kyrgyzstan (Azda tv, April 5), it seems that Tajikistan is looking for assistance from its former backer again. Some experts believe the Islamic Republic quietly supported Tajikistan on internal security matters in the past, such as the insurgency in Khudayberdiev in 1998 (Tajikpress, January 13).

Starting on April 5, Foreign Minister Zarif embarked on his four-day tour of Central Asia, starting in Uzbekistan. Bilateral relations between the two neighbors are growing rapidly: mutual trade increased by 38 percent in 2019 (, accessed April 14). Iran and Uzbekistan have also held close consultations on the Afghan peace process, which has led to cooperation in joint regional development projects. For instance, the Herat–Mazār-i-Sharīf railway is likely to become a strategic transit corridor between the two countries, connecting Iran with Central Asia via Afghanistan, bypassing Turkmenistan. Moreover, India will be the main partner linking this route to the trans-Eurasian International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC) (Mrud, December 15, 2020).

The Kyrgyz Republic, Zarif’s second destination, is the only country in the region to have signed (in 2016) a ten-year roadmap for cooperation with Iran (ISNA, December 23, 2016). Tehran delivered two consignments of humanitarian aid to Kyrgyzstan during the COVID-19 outbreak, and it opened a sports complex in Osh last December (Farsnews, December 22, 2020). Kyrgyzstan is also the first Central Asian state to have secured dock space and associated facilities at Iran’s strategic port of Chabahar in 2007; it continues to utilize this port for its exports (PMO, July 29, 2019). Last year, the two countries also jointly opened the Kyrgyzstan–Tajikistan–Afghanistan–Iran (KTAI) transit corridor from Afghanistan (IRU, March 4, 2020).

Kazakhstan is a well-known country in Iran, since it has repeatedly hosted Iranian nuclear negotiations. The Astana process is also a joint platform between Iran, Turkey and Russia to resolve the Syrian crisis. Now, in a bid to cultivate ties with the Joseph Biden administration, Kazakhstan will likely be willing to play a mediating role in talks to save the JCPOA. Beyond international conflict resolution, Iran and Kazakhstan also work closely together in transit. The East Caspian Rail Corridor opened in November 2014, connecting Kazakhstan to Iran’s southern borders. And more recently, in November 2020, cargo was shipped by sea from Iran’s Amirabad to Kazakhstan’s Kuryk port, in the Caspian (IRNA, November 22, 2020).

When it comes to relations with Turkmenistan, however, the situation is quite different. As a result of disagreements over the amount Iran owes for natural gas imports from Turkmenistan and the repayment structure, the two sides are locked legal disputes in international courts. Moreover, Turkmenistan has repeatedly closed its borders over the past year due to the coronavirus pandemic, thus greatly hampering international trade routes in the region. Iran’s Sarakhs border crossing with Turkmenistan mostly reopened after only few months; however the Incheboroun railway crossing remained closed for almost six months and Lotfabad for nine months (IRNA, November 30, 2020). Bilateral trade relations have also declined significantly over the past four years, from $579 million to $133 million (, January 1, 2021). Although President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov visited Iran several times between 2007 and 2014, he has not been back to Tehran since.

Neighboring Afghanistan is the other important factor affecting Iran’s pivot to Central Asia. Security in Afghanistan is a common threat to both Iran and Central Asia. Thus the issue could help to continue to bring both sides closer and may be a catalyst for enhancing cooperation to the level of strategic partnerships.

The Iranian government’s recent diplomatic behavior seems to showcase a hard pivot toward Central Asia. But the next president of Iran will be elected in less than three months, and more than likely he will seek to recalibrate Iranian foreign policy in a more balanced direction. Thus, in the time it has remaining, the Rouhani administration is seeking to provide a new foundation that can transform Central Asia into a useful “bridge” for Iran to build deeper ties with more distant China and Russia. Central Asia’s leaders, in turn, are surely well aware of Tehran’s new approach, and may be ready to offer the next Iranian government special concessions in return for resolving their remaining bilateral challenges and opening up new opportunities.