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Looking longingly northwards.

A BREAKTHROUGH IN Iran's relations with Uzbekistan came after an official visit to Iran by President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan at the end of November. The visit ended with firm agreements for cooperation and an invitation to Iran's President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani to pay a state visit to Uzbekistan early in 1993. The visit was the first made to Iran by the Uzbek leader, and naturally raised expectations about an improvement in relations between the two countries. Iranian-Uzbek relations are starting from a very low point, and they are bound to grow considerably.

Claims by Iranian newspapers that Tehran represents "a second home" for the leaders of the ex-Soviet Muslim republics were little more than flowery compliments. Moscow remains much more familiar than Tehran to all the Central Asian leaders. However, the suspicions about Iran's policy in the region which are undoubtedly present in Tashkent's official circles do appear to have been lessened by the visit.

The joint communique issued by the two presidents stressed the need for an end to fighting in both Afghanistan and Tajikstan, and call for non-interference in the affairs of both neighbouring states, as well as respect for all existing borders between states of the region. The Karimov government's worries that Iran is at the root of the civil war in Tajikstan and deliberately stirring up political instability in the region in the name of Islamic revolution have been eased.

For the future, the two governments intend to go ahead and develop joint ventures for mutual benefit. Agreements have been signed in specific fields of banking, insurance, staging of exhibitions and exchanges of official delegations. The Uzbekistan government is keen to extend its communications links with Iran, and wants a railway extension to connect the Central Asian rail network to Mashhad in Iran's Khorasan province.

An air transport accord was also signed under which joint transport companies will be created. Iran will lease aircraft and crews from the large fleet of Uzbekistan Hava Yollari in 1993, and regular flights between Tehran and Tashkent are due to begin early in the year.

Cultural links will be the most obvious area to build upon. Iranian culture enjoys undoubted prestige in Uzbekistan, as in other parts of Central Asia. However, this historic prestige has diminished greatly under the impact of Communist rule, with fundamental changes in society and a switch away from the Persian language to Uzbek, Turkish and Russian as the contemporary lingua franca. Uzbekistan has a strongly developed education sector with a marked secular bias. Tashkent has many prestigious specialised centres of higher education besides its university, leaving few openings for Iran to, exploit.

The two countries are already linked in the Economic Cooperation Organisation enlarged last year by Iran, Turkey and Pakistan to take in the Muslim republics of the CIS and Afghanistan Iran has a big share in the Investment Development Bank for ECO, intended to fund joint-projects in Central Asia.

Iran has pledged help in providing alternative routes for foreign trade for Uzbekistan as well as Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, which of course have direct, long land borders with Iran. Freight can go via Iranian Gulf ports, using Iran's existing railway network or conceivably by trucking across Iran to the coast. But Iran can do little on its own without international finance. The heavy costs of building a gas pipeline to the Gulf from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan would be prohibitive in Iran's difficult economic climate.

Uzbekistan has its plentiful cotton to barter for Iranian oil or other goods, but few industrial items desired by Iran. However much Iran may want to develop its trade with Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia, for most export lines, whether fruits, nuts, copper or natural gas, they will actually be in competition in world markets.

Iranian commercial interests are by no means restricted to the Muslim republics of the ex-Soviet Union. Russia and Ukraine are growing trading partners with Iran, and as industrialised countries have more to offer Iran. Low-priced Russian aircraft, ships and weapons in particular are central to Iran's rearmaments drive. With Ukraine, Iran signed a trade accord with up to $7bn one year ago, by which Iran swapped oil and gas for Ukraine's chemicals, oil equipment, refined products and other goods.

It is not only the capitals which take the initiatives. Intra-provincial cooperation across the state borders is also going forward. An Iranian trade fair held in Turkmenistan's capital Ashkhabad in November was sponsored by two provincial governments on the northern borders of Iran, Khorasan and Mazanderan. Total business concluded was not large, but Iran signed contracts to set up a tin plant and a factory for gas heaters, while Turkmenistan is to export cement, wood, iron as well as machinery to Iran.

Turkmenistan is a mineral-rich neighbour which Iran is cultivating assiduously. Iran has stepped in to supply medicines to an initial value of $6m, in an agreement which also includes an exchange of specialists and medical students.

Iran's relations with another important northern neighbour, Azerbaijan, on the western side of the Caspian Sea, also show signs of improvement. In November, Iran signed a far-ranging agreement for bilateral trade and closer economic cooperation. This may end a troubled period during most of 1992 in which Baku blamed Tehran -- unreasonably, as most observers think -- of supporting the Armenian side in the intractable dispute over the Nagorny Karabagh territory.

The agreement could be the basis for enhanced economic cooperation, and Iran is already involved in new joint projects in gas and oil exploitation in the Caspian Sea region. However, Azerbaijan shows distinct signs of preferring to deal with major multinationals like British Petroleum, and distrust still exists in Baku about Iran's foreign policy goals.
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Title Annotation:economic cooperation between Iran and the Muslim republics of Central Asia
Author:Hyman, Anthony
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Words:949
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