On February 21 Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov met with Iran’s Foreign Minister Manuchehr Motaki, in Bishkek, discussing how bilateral trade and economic plans could be furthered in the future, while also exchanging views on common security issues. The latter discussion focused on the security situation in Afghanistan and the issues stemming from drug trafficking and Iran’s “peaceful nuclear program.” The Iranian foreign minister’s first visit to Kyrgyzstan confirms an intensification of Tehran’s diplomacy within Central Asia, as the Kyrgyz government looks for greater economic investment and support for its security concerns in the region. “The main subject of the talks will be prospects for the development of bilateral cooperation in certain spheres,” the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry noted in advance.
The two-day talks resulted in ratifying two documents in the legal area. Additionally, Motaki met Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ednan Karabayev, Parliamentary Speaker Adaham Madumarov, and Finance Minister Tajikan Kalimbetova, who also co-chairs the Kyrgyz-Iranian intergovernmental commission for trade and economic cooperation (Itar-Tass, February 20).
The main elements of this bilateral relationship are economic and political, while the Iranian agenda may include hopes to receive some support or sympathy in Bishkek, given the existence of the U.S. base at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, and Tehran’s fears concerning U.S. military planning. Economic cooperation, exploited as political leverage by Tehran, is currently deepening between the two countries. Chudinov extolled Iran’s work on commissioning the Papen reservoir in southern Osh region and its successful overhaul of the Bishkek-Osh road. Equally, Chudinov noted the importance Bishkek attaches to the ongoing work of the Iranian-Kyrgyz intergovernmental commission in strengthening bilateral relations, which he wants to use to define the priorities for Iran’s promised €50 million for economic projects in Kyrgyzstan.
In addition to hosting an Iranian car assembly plant, Kyrgyz leaders would like to cooperate with Iran in the energy sector, import bitumen and vegetable oil from Iran, and export cotton and electrical products to Iran. Motaki handed messages from Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Prime Minister Chudinov, stating that he intended to expand bilateral relations. “Our relations have been friendly and fraternal over the past 17 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations,” the Iranian foreign minister said, while establishing trade and economic cooperation is the way forward. Motaki signaled interest in developing Kyrgyz mineral deposits, power engineering, and road building and opening a branch of an Iranian bank in Bishkek, while he stressed the high-level government support for the €50 million credit line for Kyrgyzstan (Akipress, February 21).
Afghanistan was the main security theme in their talks in so far, as the leaders considered the implications of increased levels of narcotic production in the country and narcotics trafficking throughout the region. Chudinov also supported Iran’s observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as supporting Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA in developing its “peaceful nuclear program.”
Tehran benefits politically from furthering such relationships within Central Asia, not least through using these opportunities to attack U.S. foreign policy toward Iran. In a February 15 interview in the newspaper Agym, Mohammad-Reza Sabouri, the Iranian ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, cast Iran as Washington’s victim: “America’s interest in our country is very strong. The Islamic Revolution was carried out in 1979 to gain independence from America. Twenty-nine years have passed since then. The USA still persistently conducts its policy against our country. Various measures are being taken to hamper Iran’s development. Our nation is critical of many U.S. measures and dislikes them. We are making every effort to cooperate with all the countries across the world. If America changes its attitude toward our country, we may opt to cooperate and maintain warm relations with it,” Sabouri suggested.
Moreover, Sabouri promoted a more independent approach in Bishkek’s dealings with the United States, saying that Kyrgyzstan is not dependent on any one state. He praised government officials in Bishkek, noting that Kyrgyzstan has maintained close relations with Iran, despite unidentified pressure to the contrary from the United States. He singled out civil servants and politicians in Bishkek, without identifying individuals, who Sabouri considered to be the main buffer against Washington’s potential efforts to weaken bilateral Kyrgyz-Iranian relations (Agym, February 15). The frequency with which Washington’s policies toward Tehran are either criticized or alternative interpretations, propaganda, and public relations exercises are present during high-level contact between Iran and its Central Asian neighbors suggests deep strategic fears and pressures being brought to bear on Iran’s Central Asian agenda.
In strategic terms, Iran is using its economic influence, political links, and closer relations with countries in Central Asia to weaken U.S. military pressure on the regime. This is particularly noteworthy in the case of Kyrgyzstan, where the U.S. military presence at Manas could be a source of strategic pressure on Tehran. Cordial relations and greater levels of Iranian economic investment in Kyrgyzstan, coupled with exhortations to Kyrgyz officials to be more independent in their dealings with U.S. counterparts, signal Tehran’s efforts to weaken any future possibility of the Manas base being used to project U.S. power into Iran; it undermines the search for overflight rights in Central Asia and throws into doubt whether Tehran could view any future U.S. military presence in Central Asia as a potential threat to Iran. In this context, Iran benefits more than any external power from controversy surrounding Manas and clearly welcomes President Bakiyev’s recent statement about the temporary nature of Manas, calling for open talks that may include future withdrawal.