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Western Asia in turmoil and rivalry between Iran and Turkey.

Last month the first part of this article examined the origins of the rivalry between Iran and Turkey in the highly volatile region of Western Asia. One cannot conclude such a survey without looking at the support Turkey receives from the West. With the increasing unrest in Yeltsin's Russia, the outlying republics of the old Soviet Union will step up their search for outside support.

In dealing with the region, Iran is being driven by two factors, but at the same time, it is being restrained by a third concern: first, it has an emotional urge to re-establish close ties with a region that, not too long ago, was part of the Iranian empire. According to an Iranian journalist, Iranian and Islamic values are so powerful in these countries that no special efforts are needed to attract the republics. They would naturally turn to Iran. At a press conference, the Iranian Foreign Minister while emphasizing the importance of non-interference principle, reiterated historic, cultural, and religious bonds with the republics in Central Asia and Transcaucasia. Responding to these sentiments, he became the first foreign minister to tour the entire region late in 1991. As stated by George Mirsky (a scholar at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow), an Iranian deputy foreign minister toned down a rivalry between Iran and Turkey in Central Asia by saying: 'Turks have nothing in the area but local idioms close to Turkish. History, civilization, culture, literature, science -- everything is Iranian'.

Second, the revival of Islam has given an impetus to Iran for playing a dynamic role in the region. In the ruins of the Soviet Union, where state, class, and party have deteriorated to this extent, few other frames of reference are left to give any identity to people. One of them is religion. Islam is the dominant religion of the people of the region. In fact, it may be considered a common denominator. As the eight years of war with Iraq showed, what kept Iran's military machine running was Islam.

Third, Iran is a mixture of various ethnic groups, although mainly from the same Indo-Iranian ethnic stock (Baluchis, Kurds, Tajiks, and Azerbaijanis share one common root with other Iranians). The fear of the rise of separatist feelings among its ethnic groups has forced Iran to mute the ethnic issues, claim no political ambitions and act as a neutral mediator between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Turkey is pursuing the goal of reinvigorating a Turkic-speaking federation that would possibly cover a land between the Balkans to a point a thousand miles inside China. Turkey envisions a 'Turkish Common Market', and is planning to facilitate free travel and business activity by introducing one single identification document in the republics. Of course, it shares common borders with none of these Turkic people, but the small territory of Nakhjevan. Turkey is counting on its seemingly more appealing secular model of government. Obsessed with the need to solidify Turkey's grip on the region, Frans Andriessen, as the EC's external affairs commissioner, once suggested that the EC should lend money to these republics to buy goods from Turkey, as a way of tying them to 'secular' Turkey rather than 'fundamentalist' Iran. However, according to a US official, it was Turkey that initially approached the EC to back major programmes in the Central Asian republics. But the Europeans were not interested. In any event, Turkey is eager to expand its influence, and the West is aware of this intense desire. Hence, both have found benefits in co-operation.

American officials are hoping that Turkey's reconciliation of modern Western culture with Islam will provide an attractive model for the republics. Ambassador Richard Armitage, Deputy to the Co-ordinator for US Assistance to the CIS, said 'Turkey is an ideal counterpoint to Iranian influence'. American officials say they might eventually help finance the Turkish efforts. Turkey has been open about its collaboration with the West, and especially the United States. As reported by the Turkish embassy in Washington, the US and Turkey are planning to launch a joint technical assistance programme for the region. 'The programme is designed to complement US Department of State efforts to forward democratic and market reform in the region. The programme will include the assistance of US financial advisors to assist ministries of finance and central banking institutions with financial sector reform and institution building'.

In the race for regional supremacy, Turkey has not refrained from blocking or by-passing Iran. As an example, President Turgut Ozal in a Turkish-US Business Council meeting held in the US in April 1992, expressed his country's willingness to offer alternative routes and possibilities to the republics. He correctly pointed out that for the Central Asian republics, every road goes through Moscow, while there are cheaper and closer alternatives available, such as going through Iran. 'It is possible to establish connection to Turkmenistan through Iran ... |but~ ... if the problem between Azerbaijan and Armenia is solved, there is another short connection through the Caspian Sea via ferry boats either for rail or trucking... This is 600 kilometers shorter than the Iranian road'. However, most probably, any attempt to exclude Iran will result in grave consequences for the region. Some observers even believe that Turkey should act as a facilitator to link not only the republics but more importantly Iran to the West.

The secular democracy of Turkey is also a more acceptable model to the elites formed by the Soviet system than any kind of theocracy. President Karimov of Uzbekistan in a gathering of US business executives and academics in Switzerland in January, 1992 stated 'we very much welcome the Turkish model of development'. An Uzbek journalist maintains that 'History will force these people together because we know each other much better than we know the outside world. It will take ten to fifteen years, but then there will be some sort of Turkic federation of Central Asia'.

There are other manifestations of such a pro-Turkish bias elsewhere. In the headquarters of Azad (free) -- a small nationalist Kazakh political party -- in Alma Ata, one may observe a picture of Ata Turk (founder of the modern republic of Turkey) hanging on the wall. Also written on the wall is the national anthem of Turkey. The editor of the party's newspaper says that they have invited people to participate in a competition for composing a Kazakh national anthem, although he believes that the Turkish anthem would inspire the participants in the contest. In Azerbaijan, Turkey could win over Azerbaijan in changing its script from the Cyrillic to the Roman. Also, the election of Elchibey to the presidency of Azerbaijan ought to be taken as a gain for Turkey, and a loss for Iran. He has repeatedly made anti-Iranian statements. Once he said 'Iran is as much a heterogeneous empire as Russia and is thus doomed to fall apart if democratic reforms and voluntary confederation do not occur'. A member of the Iranian parliament has accused Elchibey of being a politically immature individual, and unaware of the customary and proper diplomatic manners.

In escalating their competition, Iran and Turkey have taken some extraordinary steps that may endanger the already fragile conditions governing the region. According to one report, retired Turkish generals are training Azerbaijanis to form their own army. Their first attempts have been to make military ranks, uniforms and procedures of the two armies identical. Similarly, Robert Legvold (director of Columbia University's Institute for Soviet Studies) believes that Turkey is selling arms to the Azerbaijanis. On the other hand, as stated by Iran's Majahedeen Khalq, Iranian leaders have allocated the equivalent of 130 million dollars to send missionaries and political and religious propaganda mainly to Azerbaijan.

The competition between Iran and Turkey has not been well received by some of the lesser powers of the region. For instance, Armenia has made it clear that it is pursuing balanced relations with all countries, because, as they understand, only a geopolitical balance can guarantee the security of Armenia. Also, as expressed by a high ranking Azerbaijani official, Azerbaijan did not get its independence from Russia to place itself under the dominance of Turkey or Iran. Likewise, notwithstanding the attempts of Turkey to sell the idea of Western democracy, some republics' leaders have expressed their reservation about this concept. President Niyazov, of Turkmenistan, once told reporters that he does not believe that the region is ready for multi-party democracy. Ismailov, the editor of Independent Kazakhistan, in an article that reflected the president's views, wrote that the return of the Latin alphabet, very much desired by Turkey, will be disastrous for Kazakhistan. Such a switch would permanently hinder access to the national archives.

Kazakhistan is trying to balance the influence of Iran or Turkey. In implementing this strategy, it strives to maintain its previous relations with Russia, including having open borders for trade, using the ruble as common currency, and co-ordinating military and foreign policies. President Nazarbayev is against the break-up of the former Soviet republics into Slavic and Turkic-Islamic camps. He believes that such a break-up would spell catastrophe for Kazakhistan with its sizeable and educated Russian minority. It is a possibility that if the Kazakhs want them to leave, they will secede and split the country, taking their half and join the Russian Federation. In a move to appease the Russians, President Nazarbayev announced that among the alternate oil pipelines that are under consideration, he prefers the one that passes through Russia and reaches the Black Sea. He said that his decision is based on Kazakhistan's desire to continue its friendship and co-operation with Russia. However, Kazakhistan is not willing to stay too close to Russia. An indication of this attitude is a very significant oil agreement between this country and the American oil company -- Chevron. Perhaps with this agreement in mind, a Western diplomat in Kazakhistan has pointed out that Kazakhs are more pro-Western than anybody else except the Poles. Apparently, the West sees Nazarbayev as a counter-balance to the growing influence of Iran in the region.

It will be many years before the rivalry between Iran and Turkey to control Western Asia is ended.

|Dr. Keramat Poorsoltan is an Associate Professor at Frostburg State University, Maryland, USA. Notes to this article are available from K. Poorsoltan, F.S.U., Frostburg, MD 21532.~
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Title Annotation:part 2
Author:Poorsoltan, Keramat
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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