While Central Asia -a landlocked region neighboring Russia, China, the Caspian Sea, Afghanistan, and Iran- is faced with concepts such as “new regionalism”, “common home”, “opening”, “economic reform”, and “competition”, the Islamic Republic of Iran has begun to revise its economy under the cruel Western sanctions and attaches significance to the neighbors in its foreign policy more than ever. The US attempts to isolate Iran have lifted part of the economic opportunities in the emerging Central Asian countries off their economic agenda and have adversely affected the development processes in Central Asia. The Islamic Republic of Iran has given priority to “mutual cooperation within a policy of good neighborliness” approach, which entails stronger relations among the officials and people of the neighboring and surrounding countries in all fields, as the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Leader, president, and minister of foreign affairs has emphasized the importance of such priority on various occasions. However, the number of reciprocal visits by the Iranian and Central Asian officials does not still meet the targets set by the two sides, and the interference from the third parties have also occasionally altered the planning based upon the mutual interests.
In the present situation, the major existing concern in the Central Asian countries would probably relate to the rivalry and even confrontation between the extra-regional powers in that region. Russia is facing political, social, and economic challenges in Central Asia. The threat of extremism, terrorism, and China's creeping economic influence on that region have worried Russia. The attraction of Western investment and technologies, above all from the US, is setting a trap for Central Asia’s security and stability. It appears that their hegemonic move to cross the line, several Central Asian nations is the major challenge to the foreign policy of the young regional countries. The Afghan developments make another critical issue in the future of the region and an instrument for manipulating the regional developments.
At present, Iran’s adjacency to Central Asia has been maintained mainly because of Iran’s geographical capacities. Iran has abundant unused potential in the Central Asia, both in terms of a strategic region and relations with the countries of the region. While the US is attempting to restrict Iran within the common border with its neighbors, Iran is trying to promote the efficiency of cooperation with such a significant region and its countries by relying on the good neighborliness policy’s priority and by employing its geographical, economic and cultural capacities. Iran’s plans to increase the advantage of transportation projects are still its greatest privileges in cooperation with that region and have helped Iran hold its share as the most suitable and safest route connecting the Central Asia to the south and west.
The good news is coming from Uzbekistan in the current circumstance. The developments in Uzbekistan after 2016 and during President Mirziyoyev’s tenure have influenced the securitization processes in Central Asia and have opened up an ideal opportunity for convergence. Such a process could be a harbinger of a reduction in various challenges and could prepare the ground for its governments to focus on economic growth and development in Central Asia. According to Bahman Agharazi, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan, that country will achieve a remarkable economic growth within the next 3 to 5 years. Uzbekistan’s new economic policies and foreign supports will influence its investment and trade. As a result, Iran must launch plans and efforts to have a share in Uzbekistan considering its transportation, capacities, its position, and proximity to Uzbekistan’s economy and market. The first step in this path could be strengthening the rail, land, and air transportation corridors or a hybrid of them. While Tashkent receives 42 flights weekly from Russia, 16 from Turkey, and 13 from South Korea, Iran has recently operated the first direct flight to Tashkent, facilitating the travels of Iranian business people to Uzbekistan. The capacities of the Iranian ports of the Persian Gulf, the Sea of Oman, and the Caspian Sea, as well as the country’s capabilities in the rail and land transportation give a great advantage to trade between the two countries.
The Iranian and Uzbek governments and nations can strengthen bonds and promote regional cooperation in the Central Asia in various ways, such as stronger interaction between the heads and high-ranking officials of Iran and the Central Asian countries, taking into account the regional structure of Central Asia, regulation of relations with all countries in the region, active participation in the regionalism processes of Central Asia and involving Iran in Central Asia, the necessity for greater efforts considering the attempts from the third parties at obstructing the relations between Iran and Central Asia, planning for targeted maintenance of Iran’s pivotal position in transportation and road transit in Central Asia and Afghanistan, paying attention to taking advantage of the relations between Pakistan, India, Russia, China, and the other countries with the Central Asia.
Also, encouraging the active countries in Central Asia to use the Iranian routes, supporting the Central Asian countries’ employment of the port of Chabahar, trilateral cooperation for strengthening the corridor linking Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran, stronger cooperation for transportation between Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, helping the transfer of Turkmenistan’s gas through Iran, taking into account the significance of Afghanistan for Central Asia and the trilateral cooperation among Iran, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, boosting the scientific, cultural, athletic and tourism interaction between Iran and Uzbekistan, activating the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, membership in the economic institutions of the Central Asia region, further employment of the common civilizational capacities such as Avicenna, Nava'i, and Nowruz, inter-provincial cooperation and sharing the responsibilities among the provinces of Khorasan, Golestan, Mazandaran etc. for greater attention to Central Asia, stronger connections between the Iranian think tanks and universities, the Central Asian states, and contacts with active research institutes working on Central Asia in various countries, such as in Russia, China, India, Pakistan and the West.
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)