Iran is taking advantage of the vacuum in Central Asia created by the war in Ukraine
Protests against Iran’s diplomatic representations in Kabul and Herat erupted after videos went viral on social media showing police beating Afghan refugees in Iran.
With cries of “Mag bar Iran” (Death to Iran), the demonstrators set fire to the door of the Herat consulate and destroyed the security cameras.
Iranian and Taliban officials have sought to downplay the incident. They said “rogue elements” and forces seeking to stir up unrest had organized the protests.
The protests erupted nearly a week after two Iranian Shia clerics were killed and a third injured in the conservative religious stronghold of Mashhad in a stabbing attack by an alleged Salafi immigrant from Afghanistan. The attack happened at the shrine of Ali Al-Ridha, the eighth Shia Imam.
The incidents cast a shadow over Iran’s efforts to exploit the geopolitical opportunity that initially emerged with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August last year and which has potentially been greatly enhanced by Russia’s entrenchment. in the war against Ukraine.
The Ukrainian conflict means that Russia is less focused on Central Asia. It also casts a shadow over Russian security guarantees for Central Asian states, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
And it sheds a different light on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s past statements on Kazakhstan. In January, the Kazakh government called on CSTO to help end mass anti-government protests.
Russian and other CSTO troops have since left the Central Asian state, but statements Mr Putin made weeks before the intervention persist.
Using language reminiscent of his pre-war references to Ukraine intended to lay the groundwork for an invasion, Mr Putin told a press conference in December that “Kazakhstan is a Russian-speaking country in the full sense of the term. »
At the time of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Mr Putin claimed that the then Kazakh President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, leader of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan during the Soviet era, had “achieved a unique feat: he created a state on a territory where there has never been a state. The Kazakhs have never had a state of their own, and he created it.
Mr Putin went on to say that Kazakhstan’s membership in the post-Soviet five-nation Eurasian Economic Union “helps them stay in the so-called “big Russian world”‘, which is part of the world civilization.
Central Asian states were careful not to condemn the Russian invasion. However, they would have rejected Putin’s request to recognize Donetsk and Luganskthe two dissident Ukrainian regions supported by Russia.
Beyond Russia’s geography and security presence in the region, Central Asians should consider close economic ties with Russia, including the flow of remittances by Central Asian migrant workers who have suffered a severe blow because of the conflict in Ukraine.
In this environment, Iran, particularly if a revival of the 2015 international nuclear deal lifts US sanctions, has much to offer landlocked Central Asia.
American and Iranian negotiators are close to a decisive point to resuscitate the agreement which has curbed Iran’s nuclear program but was thrown into disarray after former US President Donald J. Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.
Iran believes its opportunities in Central Asia are enhanced because it offers one of the few alternatives to a full embrace by China in the absence of Russia and the United States.
Like much of the rest of the world, Iran has refused to officially recognize the Taliban government until it is inclusive.
Nonetheless, trade with Afghanistan, home to multiple land routes to landlocked Central Asia, remains buoyant at around US$2.9 billion a year.
Moreover, Iran is discussing with the Taliban the relaunch of an ambitious railway project which would initially connect Herat to Khaf in northeastern Iran, but would eventually be expanded to connect five Central Asian countries.
“This railway line can also connect Afghanistan to ports in southern Iran,” an Iranian transport official said.
The project is part of a US$2 billion Five Nation Rail Corridor (FNRC) project that would stretch 2,000 kilometers from China through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Iran.
The project takes on added importance as US and EU sanctions on Russia dash Russian, Iranian and Indian hopes for a North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) that would link India to Afghanistan, Asia Central, Russia and Europe via Iranian ports.
Iranians and Indians praised the corridor before Ukraine
Over the past year, Iran has also strengthened its military and security cooperation with Central Asian states. Last year, Iran and Tajikistan created a joint military committee which will focus on counter-terrorism.
Afghanistan’s neighbors – China, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – gathered in Tehran in October to discuss dealing with the security fallout from the Taliban takeover of Kabul.
Despite taking advantage of Russia’s self-inflicted predicament, Iran will want to maintain good relations with Moscow even if the nuclear deal is revived and US sanctions lifted.
Iran has no guarantee the deal will stay in place if US President Joe Biden loses control of Congress in this year’s midterm elections or if a Republican, possibly Mr Trump, wins the election. presidential election of 2024.
“The maneuvers in Central Asia make perfect sense for Iran. However, this will not appeal to many players. Iran must therefore ensure that it does not close any doors as it fiddles with backyards that everyone is interested in,” a Western official said.