Iran’s Central Asia Strategy

Two WPR articles from yesterday provide a good overview of the competition between the United States and Iran for allies and influence in Central Asia.

In “Iran Again Fails to Secure Shanghai Cooperation Organization Membership,” Richard Weitz says Iran is interested in cultivating economic and political ties with Central Asia to counterbalance U.S. efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic’s regime:

For several years, Iranian officials have sought to strengthen their ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). . . .

In the case of the SCO, a primary Iranian objective has been to keep other Eurasian countries from aligning themselves with U.S efforts to isolate Iran or pressure Tehran to change its policies. At the June 2006 Shanghai summit, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, attending the annual gathering for the first time, called for transforming the SCO into “a strong, influential institution” that could repel “threats of domineering powers to interfere in the affairs of other states.”

Whatever its other economic, political, and security benefits, becoming a full SCO member would help Iran counter the U.S.-led strategy to isolate Tehran to compel the regime curb its nuclear energy program. . . . Tehran has sought to cultivate ties with the SCO’s Central Asian governments to discourage them from granting the U.S. military access to their territory, airspace, or military facilities in the event that Washington decided to pursue a military option regarding Iran.

And how is this strategy playing out on the ground? The case of Azerbaijan, which is trying to maintain relations with both the United States and Iran, provides a great case study in U.S. and Iranian efforts woo countries in the region (Azerbaijan is technically a “South Caucasus” country, but it’s right on the border of “Central Asia”) with economic incentives. Shain Abbasov reports from Baku on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to the Azerbaijan capital:

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad paid his first official visit to northern neighbor Azerbaijan last week (Aug.21-22), aiming to counter growing U.S. influence in the oil-rich country and forestall further advances on a move to allow American use of the Russian-operated Gabala Radar Station in Azerbaijan.

Ahmedinajad and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev emphasized the ethnic, religious and economic ties between the two nations on the Caspian Sea, but security and defense issues were the focus of the talks. . . .

“Along with bilateral relations, we seriously discussed the situation in the region, and regional cooperation and security issues,” Aliyev said at a joint press conference with Ahmadinejad Aug.21. “Relations between Azerbaijan and Iran are developing in many areas and the two countries are getting closer. Our relations are strong and we are sharing opinions on all issues.”

The Iranian president, meanwhile, in what was perhaps a reference to U.S. interests in Azerbaijan, said unidentified “forces” are trying to “create problems between Iran and Azerbaijan.” But he said efforts to drive a wedge between the two countries “Have no chance. Our friendship has a long history and is successfully developing these days.”

See also Abbasov’s report on a recent U.S. diplomatic visit to Baku to announce money for oil and gas pipeline development.