Over the weekend, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov made a visit to Iran, meeting with his counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. On February 10, the two sides discussed a range of cooperative topics and Kamilov delivered a joint letter of invitation from the Uzbek and Afghan foreign ministries for Zarif to attend a conference on Afghanistan which Uzbekistan aims to host this spring.
Comments on both sides underscored a maturing bilateral relationship. In the words of Iran’s Mehr News Agency, the Uzbek side emphasized the “urgent need to strengthen inclusive political and economic relations and compensate for the past shortcomings in the development of cooperation between Tehran and Tashkent.” (Bolding mine).
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Uzbekistan’s longtime president, Islam Karimov, was always worried about Islamist-inspired groups challenging his regime. When Uzbekistan became independent in late 1991, Iran was seen as the Islamic-fundamentalist threat, despite the fact that Iran is mainly Shi’a and most Central Asians, certainly most Uzbeks, are Sunnis.
Karimov’s death in 2016 and the rise of Shavkat Mirziyoyev to power — with a distinct neighborhood reengagement policy and heavy emphasis on economic matters — dovetailed with the deterioration of Iran’s relationships with its other Central Asian partners.
The Iran-Tajikistan relationship, for example, has cratered since 2015. That year the government of Emomali Rahmon doubled down on its pursuit of the country’s formerly legal Islamist opposition party — the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) — eventually throwing its leaders (and their lawyers) in jail; meanwhile, in December 2015, Iranian organizers of the 29th Islamic Unity Conference seat the IRPT’s leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, next to the official Tajik delegation. Since then, a relationship built on shared language and cultural history (the Tajik language, for example, is a version of Persian), has deteriorated. At the same time, Tajikistan has drawn closer to Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia.
In October, Uzbek Foreign Minister Kamilov had led a delegation to Tehran which returned to Tashkent after signing agreements in the agricultural and textile sectors. There’s more room for economic linkages between Iran and Uzbekistan. The visit also featured the start of discussions on exporting Iranian oil to Uzbekistan via rail. As Pannier noted after the trip, that same route could conceivably be used to bring double landlocked Uzbekistan to the Persian Gulf.
Another rail route to the sea would wind through Afghanistan, from Mazar-i-Sharif to Herat and from there on to Iran. In December, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made an official visit to Uzbekistan where he met with Mirziyoyev. During the visit, about 40 commercial contracts worth $500 million were signed, as was an agreement to extend the railway Uzbekistan had constructed in 2011 from a town on the Uzbek-Afghan border to Mazar-i-Sharif onward to Herat.
The rejuvenation of Uzbek-Iranian ties provides more solid diplomatic ground for Tashkent’s larger regional ambitions as well. Afghanistan should be a critical node in regional transportation networks; but at present the country is more a consistent source of anxiety and risk. Instability in Afghanistan, even if it doesn’t ‘spill over’ northward, makes Central Asia understandably nervous and hampers regional progress.
Uzbekistan is scheduled to co-host a conference on Afghanistan this spring in Tashkent — now said to be set for late March or early April. As I wrote last month:
The joint initiative hopes to serve as a launchpad for negotiations between Kabul and the “armed opposition” (i.e. the Taliban). On the margins of that meeting, the first meeting of the C5+Afghanistan will be held. The C5+1 format — the five Central Asian states plus the United States — was an initiative launched from Washington in the final days of the Obama administration. Bringing together the five Central Asian states and Afghanistan is an extension of the concept which places Central Asia at the core of regional diplomacy rather than at its margins.
Uzbekistan’s conference is supposed to take place after the 3rd Kabul Process meeting which was delayed to late February. Any possible hope for that meeting, or for the Tashkent conference, to “serve as a launchpad for negotiations” with the Taliban seems all but absurd given the increased pace of devastating attacks in recent weeks. Nevertheless, the drawing together of the region — in the name of Afghanistan, but with economics on the mind — could have positive impacts for all involved; and that includes Iran.