While the Middle East remains a major preoccupation for American policymakers, far less attention has been given to Central Asia, despite the ongoing war in Afghanistan. But there are signs that Central Asia will be of growing importance for policy makers because the region is becoming increasingly entwined with the rivalries in the Middle East. The key countries in this process are Russia and Iran and the issues revolve around not only energy and major infrastructure programs, but also more intractable issues like Sunni-Shiite enmity. The latter, in particular, could ignite more violence beyond the Middle East thanks to these trends. And since the United States has expanded its involvement in Afghanistan, it behooves U.S. policymakers to monitor these trends closely.
Although Moscow and Tehran are apparently cooperating in Afghanistan, as they are in the Middle East, and supporting the Taliban, that partnership hardly begins to exhaust the new connections between Central Asia and the Middle East. For example, Tajikistan has vetoed Iran’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) because of Iranian support for the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which Dushanbe outlawed as an extremist group in 2015. But beyond that, the flow of Saudi money to Tajikistan clearly has helped fuel Tajik suspicions of Iran’s support for religious Muslim parties. Thus, Iran now seeks to mollify Tajikistan and gain full entry into the SCO. Beyond that, Moscow and Tehran’s partnership is consolidating itself in the Caspian basin. Both states are pursuing major infrastructure and energy deals with Azerbaijan, tying them all together, and appear to be on the verge of finalizing a deal for demarcation of the Caspian Sea that would make it a closed Russo-Iranian condominium. Previously antagonistic Irano-Azerbaijani relations are now discernibly improving, as are Russo-Azerbaijani relations.
With the Russo-Iranian tandem operating in Afghanistan and the Caucasus, Iran’s rivals are naturally on alert. For instance, Saudi Arabia is attempting to capitalize on the breakdown earlier this year of Iran’s relations with Turkmenistan, leading to the cessation of Turkmen gas supplies to Iran. Saudi Arabia is now presenting itself as a potential investor in Turkmenistan’s gas industry following Ashgabat’s request that Riyadh invest in the TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India) pipeline. Saudi investment here would also extend its rivalry with Iran into South Asia, given Indo-Iranian participation in constructing the port of Chah Bahar and surrounding infrastructure. Moscow, too, has entered into the conversation with Turkmenistan as it has recommenced discussions with Ashgabat to sell Turkmen gas to Europe. If those discussions lead to an agreement, then Moscow will have won back what it lost in 2009 and solidified its control over Caspian energy along with influence on Iran.
Effects on the U.S. Position
In the meantime, U.S. pressure and threats will faze Iran less as it works with its new partners. Inasmuch as our allies are not very inclined to follow the Trump Administration’s Iran policy, these machinations by Tehran and Moscow will weaken American policy positions in Central Asia, the Middle East, and probably in Afghanistan, if not further in South Asia. The vigor with which Russia and Iran are moving to consolidate and extend their partnership, if not working alliance, beyond the Middle East displays their assessment of the importance of the Caucasus, along with Central and South Asia, in terms of both geoeconomics and geopolitics. Economically these areas are now among the prime targets of international rivalry for construction of major infrastructural projects in transport, telecommunications, and energy (e.g., China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the projected Russo-Iran-India North South corridor). Evidently, major continental powers feel impelled for both strategic and economic reason to undertake these mammoth projects that will open up Asia’s interior to modern telecommunications and infrastructure while also relieving long-lasting energy problems in areas like South Asia.
Strategically, such problems allow continental players like Russia, Iran, and China to expand their strategic presence and profile across Asia, thereby undermining U.S. policy to isolate and marginalize them. With Russian assistance, Iran is expanding its influence throughout the Middle East. Though this expansion provokes a rivalry with Saudi Arabia that has now spread to Central Asia, it clearly appears to be eliminating areas of tension like Azerbaijan and will no doubt attempt to restore a modus vivendi with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. We should not be surprised if Moscow plays a role in such restoration. Indeed, both these states stand on the verge of major regional coups, demarcation of the Caspian Sea along their preferred lines, stronger ties with Azerbaijan, and the potential restoration of Russia’s former role in ensuring the export of Turkmen gas to Europe. Beyond that, both these governments are collaborating in Afghanistan to undermine U.S. policy and ensure the Taliban’s presence in any forthcoming government. That policy also allows for expanded Russian and potentially Iranian cooperation with Pakistan. Thus, strategy and economics impel similar policies and alliances against Washington.
Changes Needed in Washington’s Response
These developments merit greater attention in Washington for they show that our anti-Iranian policies in the Middle East are likely to fail. Iran now possesses alternatives to the United States who are only too happy to make deals with Tehran and provide for their own interests. Moreover, absent a coherent U.S. policy for both Central Asia and the Caucasus – which has been the case for about a decade – the smaller states of the Caucasus and Central Asia have little choice but to find ways of getting along with Iran and taking advantage of looming economic opportunities in areas like energy and infrastructure.
The ramifications of these trends suggest that it will not be enough to offer a purely diplomatic or military-based policy to meet the challenges in these areas, even though those instruments must play an important role in any Western and American strategy. In Afghanistan, for example, it will probably not be enough to send more troops, conduct more focused and vigorous military operations with a hopefully improved Afghan military, and help improve the Afghan state’s governance. To overcome the Russo-Iranian tandem we will require diplomatic and economic tools to increase the American presence in Central Asia, as desired by the governments of that region.
To be sure, there are some signs that Washington has begun, albeit haltingly and in piecemeal fashion, to address security issues in the Caucasus and Central Asia. High-ranking U.S. officials have spoken positively about the coinciding of U.S. positions with the new Uzbek government’s reforms and search for U.S. investments. This suggests potential receptivity to Uzbek reforms, which is a desirable policy in its own right, and one that could open up prospects for more regional cooperation among Central Asian states without Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran. Proposals for the latter form of cooperation have now been made by both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and they deserve to be investigated and shaped positively with appropriate American influence. Therefore, it is necessary to enlarge the focus of U.S. policy to see Central Asia in its own right and not merely as a region near something of more consequence, like Afghanistan, China, Iran, or Russia. This also means paying more attention to finding ways for Central Asian governments to diversify their customers in the energy business in order to prevent Russia from monopolizing that lever and using it to keep these states in a quasi-colonial relationship with it.
In the South Caucasus, the Washington has begun upgrading its military assistance to Tblisi and has approved the transfer of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Georgia, showing an enhanced commitment to the Georgians against Russian encroachments beyond the Obama administration. This decision, and the support for Uzbekistan, may betoken a reassessment of the growing importance of the Caucasus and Central Asia for the U.S., especially as the linkages between those areas and the Middle East become increasingly prominent.
We have already seen how these areas connect to Europe – not least due to energy security – and to Asia. But the issues go beyond energy security. They now include the Sunni-Shia divide, support for terrorism in Afghanistan as well as the Middle East, and the greater geopolitics of Asia’s major powers, including the Russo-Iranian and Russo-Chinese tandems. Under these circumstances, neglect of the connections between the Middle East and these areas cannot in any way be considered benign. Other governments have grasped this, and Washington must respond accordingly.
Dr. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
Image: Sitting left to right: President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev at the concert for the meeting of the SCO Heads of State Council meeting in June 2017 in Astana. Courtesy of Kremlin.Ru.