In recent years, China has propelled itself to the position of Central Asia’s leading external partner — in the process, investing previously unthinkable sums of money in the region and expanding its political and economic influence. However, Iran, while currently unable to compete with China in Central Asia on almost all fronts, has repositioned itself toward fostering engagement with the region. Tehran, combining its sizeable religious and ethnic affinity with many parts of the region and its access to vital seaports and security priorities in Afghanistan, has leveraged a more-than cordial level of rapport with the countries of Central Asia. To this end, Iran has implemented a new “Look East” policy to engage Central Asian countries on a selective, bilateral basis, which contrasts with China’s hegemonic approach of pumping billions into Central Asia, viewing the region as a vital ingredient to its global infrastructure and soft power agenda.
The Central Asia Barometer (CAB) Survey is a biannual large-scale research project that measures social, economic, and political atmospheres in Central Asian nations by conducting interviews with 1,000-2,000 respondents in each country in several waves from 2017 to 2021. Data collected by CAB shows that Iran is seemingly perceived as an unknown: unproven, untested, and unfamiliar. However, Iran could see itself considered as a possible supplementary partner on the horizon, offering a different set of opportunities and challenges for Central Asia.
Iran is a nation that possesses deep historical ties to large parts of Central Asia, given the cultural and linguistic legacy that sprawling Persian empires left upon the region. Even today, Uzbek cities such as Samarkand and Bukhara boast large Persian-speaking populations, while Tajikistan remains a majority ethnically and linguistically Persian nation. However, only recently has Central Asia become a policy priority for Tehran, which now sees the region as a potential “bridge” between Iran and the East. The “Look East” policy constitutes a key aspect of Iran’s approach to international relations, and it has sprung engagement with nations within the region on an individual, bilateral basis in particular in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
Public Sentiment Toward Iran Remains Low and Uncertain
Surprisingly, many in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan remain ambivalent in their sentiments toward Iran. Despite a large Persian legacy in sections of Central Asia and recent efforts by Tehran to establish a stronger presence within the region, Iran is just simply not on the radar for many.
When asked their opinion on Iran, at least a quarter, and in many cases more, of the respondents from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan replied with the answer “Don’t Know” over several different waves of the Central Asia Barometer study.
In addition, the number of those who report a very unfavorable opinion of Iran has steadily risen from 2017 onward. Perhaps residents of these nations are hesitant to accept another large external partner within the region, given the influence which China and Russia already wield. It is conceivable that Central Asian policymakers would consider the possible implications that the Iranian exportation of the Islamic revolution could have upon their own populations, given that Central Asian nations have fought to establish themselves as independent states both politically and culturally in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Iran as a Potential Future Supplemental External Partner
Kazakhstan is a nation that is linked to Iran through its joint participation in international conflict resolution, with the former often serving as the host for Iranian nuclear negotiations. Trade has also increased between the two states as well, with the introduction of the East Caspian Rail Corridor in 2014 providing a faster and cheaper route for moving goods (and potentially passengers) along a route meaningfully linking Iran and Kazakhstan.
Despite Uzbekistan’s previous reluctance to develop a relationship with Iran, bilateral relations between the two have flourished. Potential transit corridors have been discussed as Iran-Uzbekistan trade has increased, namely in agricultural production. Both nations collaborated during the Afghan peace process, an issue of especially high priority for Iran, which had set its sights on an enhanced role in regional security. By working with Uzbekistan, a major power within the region, Iran inserted itself into a position where it may be overperforming when we consider the catastrophic challenges Tehran faces domestically -- perhaps foreshadowing a future mandate to grapple with such large-scale issues on a grander scale in the future.
Kyrgyzstan was the sole nation in the region to successfully sign a 10-year cooperation deal with Iran in 2016 and was the first to acquire dock space in Iran’s Gulf of Oman Chabahar port in 2007. Such access to the sea is especially important for the landlocked Central Asian nations, which are vying for access to trade routes and facilities. India also helped secure access to Chabahar for Turkmenistan, opening a gateway for trade to the region through Turkmenistan as well. It appears that Iran and India are directly addressing this practical need, bolstering relations and further opportunities for collaboration as well.
Despite negative sentiments surrounding Iran held by residents of these countries, there are many who have planted themselves firmly in the middle -- unaware of the country and its priorities. Iran remains unproven and unknown, but its priorities for the region -- in particular, security and access to water -- are highly salient for the growth of individual Central Asian states. Will Iran’s repositioning toward Central Asia allow Tehran to contribute to a new multipolar environment to challenge China’s economic hegemony within the region? While Iran is unlikely to become a direct rival of China in the short term, Tehran’s “Look East” policy could provide a new set of opportunities for Central Asia.
Looking forward, Iran must continue to engage the states of Central Asia on a bilateral basis, determining the most mutually beneficial avenues for meaningful rapprochement. Tehran should also look to sell its economic vision for the region through enhanced collaboration with regional economic integration projects. Iran has received preliminary approval to become a full member of the Russia and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and under the chairmanship of Russia, the Eurasian Economic Union penned a major preferential trade deal with the Middle Eastern country. Continuing along this path and in the process raising Iran's profile beyond an unknown and alien actor in the eyes of ordinary citizens in Central Asia would present both Iran and Central Asia with a unique position.