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Could Iran be a Gateway for Central Asia?

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Could Iran be a Gateway for Central Asia?

Connecting with Iran may be tempting for Central Asian countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, but increased relations with Tehran may ultimately be counterproductive.

Could Iran be a Gateway for Central Asia?
Credit: Depositphotos

The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project may finally get underway, according to Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov. At the 8th annual Trans-Caspian Forum, organized by the Caspian Policy Center on May 21, Kyrgyz Ambassador to the U.S. Bakyt Amanbaev added that the project will connect with Pakistan to reach the Arabian Sea and “holds special significance for all of us [because it will have] enormous economic and social importance for the entire region.”

While Amanbaev mentioned Pakistan, Iran has been discussed as a potential point for sea access as well. Kyrgyz officials visited Iran’s port of Bander Abbas in 2021, prompting speculation that Bishkek wanted to reach the ocean by linking to it. In 2023, Kyrgyz Railway Company Deputy Director Dastan Usubakunov also noted, “We will get access to the Persian Gulf and Pacific Ocean [via] Bandar Abbas Port.”

At a recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting, Iran’s ambassador to Tajikistan said that Iran can be Central Asia’s gateway to international markets. Ambassador Alireza Haghighian noted that given its location, Iran can help Central Asia obtain access to the Persian Gulf and, from there, to the broader world.

The statement is not new; Tehran has previously discussed increasing transportation infrastructure connectivity with Central Asian countries. For example, Tehran proposed linking to the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway in 2022 and addressed the possibility of a transit corridor with Tashkent and Ashgabat in October 2023.

While Iran has generally close relations with Tajikistan, Tehran is also keen to approach other Central Asian states, particularly Kyrgyzstan. In 2023, Iranian imports of non-oil products from Kyrgyzstan increased. News reports have mentioned Bishkek’s interest in improving its connections with Iran.

As I have previously discussed for The Diplomat, the CKU railway project will bring Kyrgyzstan further into China’s orbit, with debt and growing dependency on Beijing significant concerns. Given Kyrgyzstan’s already damaged international image due to the repressive actions of Japarov’s government, a Bishkek-Tehran partnership may entail negative consequences for Kyrgyzstan.

Iran is likely also trying to promote connectivity projects to improve relations with Uzbekistan, as “despite the solid groundwork for integration, Uzbek-Iranian relations still have a distinct smell of confrontation,” argued Dr. Vladimir Mesamed from Hebrew University. In a February meeting between the two governments in Tashkent, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri proclaimed that “the depth of the long-standing relations between the two countries was formed in a popular context, and for this reason, it cannot be broken.” Bilateral trade reached around $500 million in 2023.

Central Asian governments should be wary of Iran’s offer to act as a gateway for Central Asia. A self-evident reason is that Iran continues to be regarded as a pariah state and malign actor by the United States, Europe, and several other governments. The recent drone attacks against Israel and the incidents involving the Iranian Navy seizing oil tankers have further exacerbated tensions with Washington. Thus, the image of Central Asian governments would be tarnished by increasing connectivity with Iran.

This warning is particularly relevant for Kyrgyzstan, as U.S. Senator Bob Menendez has already warned the Kyrgyz leadership about helping Russia avoid sanctions, and Kyrgyz-based companies have been sanctioned for their links with Russia. It is hypothetically possible that the West could threaten Bishkek with sanctions if, besides links with Moscow, they also increase ties with Tehran.

Tehran’s interest in linking to the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan corridor must be put into the bigger geopolitical context. With a limited number of regional allies (including Syria, another international pariah), Iran seeks partners and allies elsewhere, such as Central Asia. The country achieved a victory in 2023 when it became a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Membership in the SCO will facilitate the training of Iranian military personnel with Central Asian armed forces in the future. Gaining alliances in Central Asia would help Iran avoid international isolation and legitimize itself globally. 

Much has been written about Iran’s strategy toward Central Asia, with some analysts arguing that as Russia is focused on Ukraine, “Iran is moving to fill a gap left by Russia [and] the Russian invasion also is forcing Central Asian states into an economic reckoning.” Certainly, history and geography play a role, and Iran has cultural and historical ties with Central Asia. Still, Tehran has limited offerings for Central Asia; Tehran cannot match the Russian market vis-a-vis Central Asia dollar to dollar.

The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project is not new; over the years, there have been multiple false starts. Hence, it remains to be seen if Japarov’s optimism that the project will soon get underway is well-placed. Of the three countries involved in the project, Bishkek appears to be the most eager to start it (during the Trans-Caspian Policy Forum, the Kyrgyz ambassador was the only diplomat who mentioned the railway project in his remarks). This situation is unsurprising as, given its geographic location, Kyrgyzstan relies heavily on new transport corridors to access the wider world.

However, the railway project will be expensive. It will rely heavily on Chinese investment and Bishkek’s ability to procure financial assistance from other sources, including, perhaps, international credit institutions. Given the country’s economic situation and deteriorating international image, obtaining international financial aid may be difficult.

As an already expensive and complex international railway corridor may finally begin construction, Central Asian governments (particularly Kyrgyzstan) should not forget the importance of geopolitics and the current state of global disorder. Connecting with Iran may be tempting, but increased relations with Tehran may ultimately be counterproductive.