On May 7, 2016, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani welcomed Turkmenistan’s foreign minister, Rashid Meredov, to Tehran. After their bilateral meeting, Rouhani declared that Iran and Turkmenistan needed to expand their security partnership, because both countries have common interests in counter-terrorism, containing Islamic extremism, and curbing drug trafficking.
Rouhani’s call for an Iran-Turkmenistan security partnership is not new. Iran was the first country to recognize Turkmenistan as an independent state in 1991. Ashgabat has also long been described as Iran’s “gateway to Central Asia.” Yet this close partnership is paradoxical. The five small Shiite communities residing in Turkmenistan have been subjected to extensive repression and forced to take their religious practice underground.
While Turkmenistan’s authoritarian policies towards Shiites show no signs of easing, Rouhani has strengthened Iran’s security partnership with Ashgabat for two reasons. First, due to a large common border, Iran views Turkmenistan as a crucial partner in preempting a spillover of destabilizing Islamic extremism from Afghanistan. Second, Turkmenistan has taken a hardline stance against Sunni Islamists and ISIS, a position that aligns closely with Iranian foreign policy objectives.
Iran-Turkmenistan Cooperation and Afghanistan’s Security
Iran and Afghanistan have had periods of strained relation, due to the Taliban’s presence in Afghanistan and Iran’s mass executions of Afghan prisoners. Therefore, Iran has sought out a reliable security partner in Central Asia to mediate its relationship with Kabul. Turkmenistan has emerged as the natural choice for this role due to its geographic proximity to both countries, and Ashgabat’s benign relations with both Iran and Afghanistan.
While Saparmurat Niyazov’s idiosyncratic policies occasionally caused tensions, Turkmenistan has pursued a delicate balancing act towards Afghanistan for most of the post-1991 period. This allowed it to maintain a strategic partnership with both the Taliban regime and Hamid Karzai’s government. The Asian Development Bank’s TAPI pipeline project linking Turkmen natural gas to South Asia via Afghanistan has increased the importance of cooperation between Ashgabat and Kabul. As Turkmenistan has repeatedly negotiated with Iran on joint large-scale oil and gas projects, it can use its energy security leverage to be a powerful advocate for peace between Tehran and Kabul, at both the national government and transnational levels.
In addition to its energy leverage, Turkmenistan has considerable influence over the flow of Afghan illegal drugs to Iran. There is compelling evidence that Niyazov’s coterie of allies profited extensively from the corruption associated with the Afghan opium trade. This caused tensions with the United States and other Central Asian countries.
Even though Turkmenistan has still not secured its borders fully or eradicated elite-level drug trade corruption, it has taken tangible steps to curb the flow of illegal drugs to Iran. In 2013, Turkmen police oversaw the largest ever seizure of Afghan opium from the Iran-Turkmenistan border. This was part of a larger anti-drug campaign which cracked down on domestic drug abuse and suspended pardons for criminals convicted of drug-related offenses. These improvements combined with Turkmenistan’s close economic relationship with Afghanistan have made the expansion of security ties with Ashgabat vital for the success of Iran’s war on drugs.
Iran and Turkmenistan have also been united around the cause of stabilizing Afghanistan after NATO troops are withdrawn. Rouhani regards economic multilateralism as an effective agent of regional stability. After his meeting with Meredov, he called for water and energy sector cooperation between the three countries.
Yet Iran is also interested in military containment strategies towards Afghanistan, as Tehran is concerned about US hegemony being projected so close to its borders. Turkmenistan’s increasingly aggressive border security measures against the Afghan threat benefit Iran’s interests. Turkmenistan’s security crackdowns have become more pronounced despite official statements insisting that the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border region is stable, and denunciations of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s accusations to the contrary.
Turkmen border guards have also become increasingly willing to arrest Afghans suspected of Islamic extremism. Turkmenistan’s October 2015 discovery of 80 Taliban fighters camping out on what was thought to be a “heavily armed” territory escalated this trend considerably. Ashgabat’s softening of its permanent neutrality stance has not gone unnoticed in Tehran and has strengthened the budding bilateral security partnership.
Iran-Turkmenistan Cooperation Against Islamic Extremism
In addition to joint interests in securing Afghanistan, there is a great deal of synergy between both countries’ desires to combat Sunni Islamic extremism. After his recent meeting with Meredov, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif warned against the spread of Islamic extremism that would fuel sectarianism in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Turkmenistan’s openness to cooperating with Iran on the Islamic extremist threat is a major rhetorical shift. While Ashgabat has been actively working to curb Islamic radicalization amongst its population for at least two decades, regime officials have consistently denied that Islamist movements pose any threat to the country’s security.
Turkmenistan’s increasingly aggressive counter-terrorism efforts have been motivated by two factors. First, Turkmenistan is concerned by the prospect of underground Islamist movements posing a threat to Berdimuhamedov’s regime security. Independent estimates reveal that organizations like Hizb ut-Tahrir have significantly more resources and followers, than the Turkmen regime admits publicly. If their progress is left unchecked, they could become politically powerful opposition movements. They could also gain popular support by appealing to rural Turkmens disaffected with economic inequality.
Iran shares Turkmenistan’s fears of radical Sunni movements and views a stable Central Asia as vital to its security interests. Iranian authorities view Hizb ut-Tahrir with consternation, as the organization’s funding comes from a wide range of countries, and is therefore, difficult to trace. Also, according to Omar Bakhach, a senior Hizb ut Tahrir operative in Beirut, the organization has established a faction of Shiite supporters in Lebanon and Iraq. This faction clashes openly with Hezbollah and other Iranian proxy terror groups in those countries. Therefore, Turkmenistan’s Islamic extremist containment efforts are useful in ameliorating Iran’s security concerns and partially explain the tightening Tehran-Ashgabat partnership.
Second, Iran approves of Turkmenistan’s increasingly aggressive crackdown on the Islamic State (ISIS). The massacres of Turkmen civilians in Iraq by ISIS forces in summer 2014, combined with Turkmenistan’s fear of ISIS spillover from Afghanistan, have caused Berdimuhamedov to expand internal repression to military mobilization against the terrorist group. In March 2015, a leaked statement from Turkmen defense ministry official Agamyrat Garakhanov, revealed that Turkmenistan was planning to embark on a large-scale reserve military buildup against ISIS. This would be the first deployment of its kind in the post-1991 period.
Despite these actions, there is little evidence that ISIS poses an imminent security threat to Turkmenistan. This suggests that Turkmenistan’s anti-ISIS crackdown is largely instrumental in nature. Aggressively combating ISIS rallies pro-regime nationalism around the terror group’s repression of ethnic Turkmens and creates an external enemy to justify stable authoritarian rule.
In addition to these domestic considerations, Turkmenistan’s increasingly hawkish anti-ISIS assault has strategic benefits. One key benefit is the creation of a normative solidarity bond with Iran. This will result in expanded capital infusions into its economy, especially as Iran reaps the windfall from the removal of sanctions. It also increases Turkmenistan’s stature in Eurasia’s energy markets.
The recent Rouhani-Meredov summit occurred largely under the radar of the Western media. But it could be a critical step in Iran’s ambitions to find a reliable Central Asian security partner. As Turkmenistan shares a host of common security concerns with Tehran and views an alignment with Iran as valuable for its own regime security, the prospect of a durable alliance against drug trafficking, Sunni Islamic extremism and ISIS appears brighter than ever. It is an alliance that could have profound effects for the security of both Central Asia and the Middle East in the years to come.
Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post, Huffington Post and Kyiv Post amongst other publications. He can be followed on Facebook at Samuel Ramani and on Twitter at samramani2.