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Western Asia in turmoil and rivalry between Iran and Turkey.

AFTER the collapse of the Soviet Union, some urgent issues that for long had stayed dormant are coming into full flare, and turning into potentially destructive forces. In this article, the focus will be on the Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, and the rivalry between Iran and Turkey in their quest for regional supremacy. We may categorize the most troublesome issues in the region into two major groups: Ethnic, and ideological/political problems.

The region is facing three pressing ethnic issues: (i). Tajik-Pashtun-Uzbek rivalries in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, (ii). The Armenian-Azerbaijani territorial disputes, and (iii). The Kurdish independence movement.

First -- the Tajiks are a Farsi-speaking ethnic group living in the middle of the Turkic-speaking republics of Central Asia and Transcaucasia. Ethnically, they are closely related to the Tajiks of northern Afghanistan. For over half a century, Tajiks on both sides of the border had been relegated to the position of second rate citizens. In Tajikistan they were subordinate to their more powerful Uzbek countrymen, and in Afghanistan, the government was mostly run by Pashtuns. Now, in the void created by the elimination of the Soviet Union, and the collapse of the establishment in Afghanistan, Tajik nationalism is ascending in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

After the defeat of President Najibullah's regime in Afghanistan, the Hezb-e-Islami faction led by Hekmatyar has been trying very hard to re-establish Pashtun dominance over Afghan politics. However, geopolitical changes, such as the presence of an Islamic government in Iran, the downfall of the Soviet Union, as well as significant internal developments have made that comeback impossible. At the moment, Afghanistan's president, Rabbani, is a Tajik from the Badakhshan area of Tajikistan. Afghanistan's defence minister, Massoud, also is a Tajik. Moreover, the government in Afghanistan is based on a coalition of Uzbeks and Tajiks (northern ethnic groups) in addition to moderate Pashtuns (a southern ethnic group). Massoud who is aware of the aggressiveness of Uzbeks, has taken side with the Uzbek militia leader (Rashid Dostum) who had supported the previous regime. However, relations between Uzbeks and Tajiks are strained. In December 1992, Dustom's loyal forces that have consolidated their hold in the north, took up arms against President Rabbani who has refused. as agreed upon earlier, to step down from his position.

Uzbeks and Tajiks in Tajikistan are engaged not in a friendly cooperation, but in a confrontation. Tajiks are involved in two concurrent quarrels, one with former Communists -- a great number of them are Uzbeks -- over political and ideological issues, and the other, mainly over economic concerns, also with Uzbeks. While Tajiks mostly constitute the poor urban masses, northern Tajikistan (Khojend) is populated by Uzbeks who are the most prosperous and dynamic people in the area. In Uzbekistan Tajiks and Uzbeks have lived side by side for centuries in ancient cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. However, in the absence of a strong central authority and an ideology to mend the differences of ethnic groups, Tajiks are increasingly becoming restive. For instance, Tajiks whose ancestors originally came from Bukhara, a city in Uzbekistan, openly demand the return of the city to Tajikistan. Extremists believe that a revival of Tajik culture is almost impossible without Bukhara and Samarkand. This kind of nationalistic aspiration is a reaction to the artificial boundaries created by Stalin. Before this 'Gerrymandering', the entire Central Asian region was simply known as Turkistan. Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan, maintains that: 'If you want to pit one republic against another, you have to start talking about frontiers'.

In helping their people in Tajikistan, Afghanistan's Tajiks are infiltrating into Tajikistan. There are reports about setting up camps in Afghanistan for training guerrillas. Fearful of violence, Uzbeks are fleeing from Tajikistan. But, Tajiks coming from Afghanistan say that the fight between various Mujahedeen factions in Afghanistan has made it unsafe for Afghans to stay there. One Islamic leader battling the pro-communist forces in Tajikistan believes that they are former communists who after the fall of President Najibullah are retreating to Tajikistan. These refugees have also been accused of drug trafficking and arms smuggling. The commander of Russian border troop units in Tajikistan sees these people as a security threat to the entire Commonwealth of the Independent State (CIS). In response to such a threat, CIS troops have been reinforced to prevent Afghan guerrillas from crossing the border. Also thwarting attempts to bolster the Tajik 'fifth column' in Uzbekistan, Tajik passengers travelling to Uzbekistan are tightly controlled at the border. Following the recent developments in Tajikistan where Muslim Democratic forces were defeated by a coalition of pro-communist elements in Tajikistan and their Uzbek counterparts in Uzbekistan, Tajiks are on the move again, although this time in a southward direction.

In this tripartite factional war, the position of Iran is particularly important. One may say that Iranians are behind the Tajik's insurgency due to two reasons. First, Tajikistan and Iran are related to each other by culture and language. Second, Tajiks are more faithful Muslims than other peoples of the Central Asian republics, and this makes them better candidates for Iran's assistance. In regard to Afghanistan, during the 10-year old Mujahedeen fight against Afghanistan's former regime, Iran as well as Pakistan supported Hekmatyar's fundamentalist group. Nevertheless, both countries have changed their stand vis-a-vis Hekmatyar. As long as the Mujahedeen were fighting against Afghanistan's previous regime, Hekmatyar was the recipient of a much larger share of these countries' assistance. However, he has scared both governments. Pakistan is afraid of Hekmatyar's victory in the internal conflict. His Pashtun roots, reaching into Pakistan's own Pashtun minority, may well jeopardize Pakistan's very existence. The Pakistani Prime Minister supports the Mujahedeen's government in Kabul. But, a small Islamic party in Pakistan's coalition government -- Jamaat-i-Islami -- has lent a helping hand to the Hekmatyar faction. What has made this small party a potentially divisive element is its strong position in parts of Northwest Frontier Province (bordering on Afghanistan), Baluchistan (bordering on Iran), and rural areas of Punjab Province. Reza Deghatti, an Iranian reporter, close to Massoud, believes that the upheavals in Tajikistan, and other Central Asian republics forced Iranian authorities to change their long-held position. He says that the possibility of the dismemberment of Afghanistan prompted Iranians to think about an eventual fallout on Iran.

The second raging ethnic dispute revolves around two territorial issues: Nagorno-Karabagh and Nakhjevan. Nagorno-Karabagh is an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, and Nakhjevan is an Azerbaijani territory separated from Azerbaijan by Armenia. The conflict originates from two opposing nationalistic aspirations: Azerbaijan's desire in asserting its sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabagh, and Armenia's wish in bringing that enclave under its control. Retaliating against Azerbaijan, Armenia has also cut off all the roads connecting Azerbaijan and Nakhjevan.

Armenia, an ancient Christian nation with a long memory of its suffering at Turkish hands, has sought to balance the Turkish presence in the region by strengthening its ties to Russia and Iran. Not willing to irritate Russians, it took a conservative approach in gaining independence from the USSR, and has demonstrated its readiness for 'maximum participation in all constructive processes' going on in the former USSR. It has also signed a security pact with Russia whereby CIS military forces are allowed to remain in Armenia, and assist that country to form its own army.

Likewise, the Armenian authorities count on Iranian support. Ter-Petrosyan, the Armenian president, in a statement cited Iran as an outlet to the outside world for Armenia and mentioned possible reaction of Iran if Turkey makes an anti-Armenian move. Early in 1992, Armenia accepted Iran's mediation between the warring factions, but Armenian zealots foiled this attempt. While the Armenian delegate was in Tehran negotiating peace talks with the Azerbaijan's delegate, Armenian militia seized Nagorno-Karabagh, and established a corridor from the Armenian enclave to the Armenian border. In addition, they 'cleansed' the corridor of its 50,000 Azerbaijanis. This ethnic purification has been practised by both sides for some time. An Azerbaijani in early 1991 wished that a day comes '... when Azerbaijanis get out from under the heels of the Russians, sell their own products abroad, buy weapons, and have sons to avenge what has happened here'.

Armenia and Azerbaijan also clash over Nakhjevan, a 2,000 square-mile Azerbaijani territory south of Armenia, bordering on Iran. Many of the 200,000 Shi-ite residents of Nakhjevan have relatives in Iran. Armenia has cut off all connecting roads between the two parts, but Iran has offered to build a line to break its isolation. Turkey, too, has sought means of easing the pressure from Azerbaijan. Turkish officials still consider a 1921 treaty with the USSR making them a guarantor of Nakhjevan's sovereignty valid. But it is almost certain that if Turkey decides to turn its words into action, it will confront Iran. Sensing the implications of this intervention, the Turkish Premier has ruled out sending Turkish troops to Nakhjevan. The position of Premier Demirel is diametrically against the stand of Turkey's hawkish president who favours military intervention. He says that if Turkey enters Nakhjevan, it cannot leave it for 20 years. Moreover, such an intervention would take the larger dimension of a Christian-Muslim conflict. Nationalistic sentiment in Turkey to intervene militarily in Nakhjevan on behalf of Azerbaijan has alarmed the Russians. In a statement, Marshal Shaposhnikov, commander of the CIS army, warned against any foreign meddling. Apparently, this strong warning has cooled Turkish hawks, including President Ozal himself.

Afraid of further escalation of the tensions, the Armenian government has taken several measures to pacify Turkey. In one, the Armenian-Americans were asked to stop hassling Turkey about historical complaints. Also, when Armenia's former foreign minister was found to have taken a hostile stance against Turkey, he had to resign from his position. This motion was welcomed by the Turkish authorities.

The Kurdish issue is the third important ethnic problem that can wreak havoc in Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and even Syria and Armenia. This ethnic group totalling 25 million people, is scattered in a large area between the countries named. Kurds constitute an Indo-European group, and are culturally and lingually a very close cousin of the Iranians. However, contrary to the common perception, they do not form a homogeneous group. Kurds are diverse and different in language, customs and even religion. The developments in the area following the Gulf War in 1991, created a seemingly golden opportunity for Kurdish nationalism. Abandoned several times by their temporary allies who were pursuing their own objectives, the Jalal Talebani and Massoud Barzani factions that populate northern Iraq, patched up their differences to form the nucleus of a future Kurdish state. This plan has received the blessing of the US, France and Britain. Also, to please Turkey, the Talebani-Barzani coalition has executed the familiar Kurdish strategy, i.e. supporting one power against another in exchange for future favours. During the Iran-Iraq war, Talebani allied himself with Iran and acted as the 'fifth column' inside Iraq. At the same time, the Kurdish Democratic Party led by Dr. Ghassemlou received Iraqi support. Unfortunately, for the Kurds, all of these alliances have been short-lived. In the latest setbacks, Iraqi Kurds 'did the job' for Turkey by forcing Turkey's Kurds to close down their bases inside Iraq, and keeping them away from the border. Yet, Turkey penetrated deep into Iraqi territory in the hot pursuit of its insurgents.

The creeping Kurdish separation from Iraq received a heavy blow after Iran, Turkey and Syria met in Ankara in November 1992. The diplomats of these three countries openly criticized Talebani-Barzani declaration of a federal state in Iraqi Kurdistan. They also questioned the legitimacy of a recent congress of the opposition leaders that convened in Iraqi territory. Dr. Velayati, the Iranian foreign minister, announced that 'Who can prove that what has been decided is based on the will of the majority of the people of Iraq?'. Undeniably, Iranian and Turkish regimes have realized the implications of the Talebani-Barzani Kurdish autonomy plan.

In the entire region, major cultural and religious revival is under way. This regeneration began from Iran's 1978 revolution, engulfed Afghanistan, and has even found great appeal in the secular Turkey and Iraq. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the turbulence in the Balkans have strengthened the hands of revivalists who are searching for their roots, in Islamic beliefs. This situation has particularly affected Turks who have historic links to the area. Some observers believe that Turkey is using its current policies vis-a-vis the region to improve its chances of eventually joining the European Community, where its main interests still lie. But, Turkey is dismayed by the long years that it has been waiting to be admitted into the European Community. Some Europeans have expressed the fact that Turks are not Europeans--culturally, historically or ethnically. As such, Turkey does not fit into Europe. Also, the on-going anti-foreigner campaign in Germany has specifically targeted Turks who work in Germany. Hence, many Turks are becoming sceptical that Turkey has any future anywhere but in the East. This conclusion echoes the sentiments of other Muslim countries. Specially after the Iranian revolution, the wisdom of co-operation with the West has been questioned by some intellectuals and politicians. Any possible change of Turkey's stand in this regard would set into motion immense regional and global changes. The recent diplomatic initiative of Turkey concerning the Kurdish problem may be considered the first step toward an 'East-bound' march by an always 'West-bound' Turkey. Turkey's Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin said in an interview that 'Turkey sits in this region and is better located to judge where her interests lie and what the best solutions are'. However, Amalia Van Gent (a correspondent of Neue Zurcher Zeitung of Zurich) quoting a Turkish Islamist maintains that Turkey cannot break off its relations with the West. It not only has 60 per cent of its trade with the West, but in turning back from the West, Turkey may also lose the favour of the various Turkic-speaking countries, that have been attracted to it because of its Westward orientation.

The nationalistic-religious revivalism is more intense in the former republics of the Soviet Union. Since the beginning of 1990, the number of mosques in the Central Asian republics has gone up from less than 200 to 5,000. In a separate but closely related development, some schools and newspapers are teaching people to read Arabic script, rather than the Cyrillic letters imposed on them by the Russians. Just a few years ago, it was hard to find a Koran in those countries. Until about 1989, it had been officially printed in limited copies in the USSR and only in Arabic. In the 1980s, the black market price of a Koran was $300. This high price created a lucrative market for the Soviet soldiers coming back from Afghanistan. They brought in so many copies that the black market price fell to $75. Now, thanks to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan, millions of Korans have been sent to the region since 1990. Moreover, Saudi Arabia mostly for the purpose of containing Iran, has poured billions of dollars into the Central Asian republics and Azerbaijan. Ironically, few Islamists have indicated a desire to borrow anything except financial support from Saudi Arabia.

Contrary to the arguments concerning a violent revival of Islam, one well placed observer in Tajikistan recently noted that, 'Years of anti-Islamic propaganda have had a strong effect here, and now we have a secular society'. Moreover, he does not equate Islam's revival with theocracy, and asks why should religion be a barrier to democracy? 'If the Baltic states can be democratic and Christian, surely we can have an Islamic democracy here.' But the composition of the supporters and opponents of Islamization has effectively made Islam a polarizing factor. The bulk of those who support the Islamic movement consists of the uneducated rural and urban poor, the fast growing class of unemployed young, and a segment of nationalist, and fundamentalist intelligentsia, including a growing number of clerics. Helene Carrene d'Encausse (author of Islam and the Russian Empire: Reform and Revolution in Central Asia) calls this group Homo Islamicus (as opposed to Homo Sovieticus). Throughout the Soviet rule, they remained unassimilated, unrussified, unadapted and distinct. Opponents of the Islamization of political and social life in republics include: local political and cultural elites, many of whom are Russified and Sovietized, ex-Communist Party establishment still in power, local democratic dissident movements, local intelligentsia, cultural personalities, and the academic elite. As such, a basically political-ideological issue is also becoming an economic one, where the poor masses are arrayed against the more privileged groups.

The experience of the past year verifies that possibility of Islamic revolution in Tajikistan is strongest here than anywhere else in the region. This is mostly so because Tajiks adopted Islam 1,200 years ago, while, for instance, Uzbeks converted to Islam at the beginning of the 14th century. It may be speculated that if Westernization fails, grass root fundamentalism could take over. Foreign political observers maintain that Tajikistan's domestic instability has left it open to meddling by Iranian and Afghan fundamentalists. Uzbek militia leaders in Afghanistan say that the Afghan radical leader, Hekmatyar, who is settling scores with his Tajik enemies in Afghanistan, is assisting fundamentalists and anti-government forces in Tajikistan. As they believe, Hekmatyar is stirring up hatred between Uzbeks and Tajiks in Tajikistan, hoping that it will eventually spill over into Afghanistan, and destroy Afghanistan's coalition government.

Even in less fundamentalist Uzbekistan, religious schools are springing up. Uzbekistan now has seven madrasah (theological seminary) up from only two a decade ago. But as in the case of Iran during its revolution in 1978, students in these seminaries could easily turn into fighters, rather than scholars. According to a correspondent for Interfax (an independent newsagency): 'The Moslem political activists are getting stronger, and religious circles are stirring things up'. An Uzbek poet named Dadan Hassan who heads a fundamentalist group called the Turkistan Democratic Party of Islam says an Islamic state is their goal.

Despite the evidence indicating the resurgence of Islam, certain factors may slow down or halt a strong return of fundamentalism. These factors are a combination of official policies and countervailing social forces. For example, the largest Uzbek opposition group, Birlik, favours free elections in the republic, and a secular, non-aligned economic and political policy. Elchibey, Azerbaijan's president, approves separation of state and religion. He believes that 'Religion cannot hold a state together for long. Nationalism spelled the end of the Christian empire states of the West, and it will now spell the end for the Muslim states of the East'. Mindful of chaos, Uzbekistan's president, Karimov, has warned about Islamic fundamentalism emanating from Tajikistan. He has vowed that he would not stop at anything to maintain stability in the country. The subsequent events demonstrated that he was faithful to his pledge. In December 1992, Uzbeks backed pro-communist forces in Tajikistan and helped them to overthrow Tajikistan's Islamic-Democratic government.

As long as the prospect of Muslim fundamentalism exists, the presence of a large number of ethnic Russians in the Central Asian republics and Azerbaijan should be considered a blessing. Another element that may be regarded as a brake on radical Muslims is a large urban, and modernized population in cities like Ishgh Abad, Tashkent, Bukhara and Baku. Moreover, the freedom from Islamic traditions for over 70 years has made a comeback to Islamic laws a rather slow process. Also, the modern Western technology has been endorsed by a number of influential Muslim leaders.

In their encounter with Islamic fundamentalism some of the officials have adopted a carrot and stick policy. For instance, in Uzbekistan religious holidays have been restored, and religious property nationalized by the Soviets has been returned. But concurrently, all religious parties have been banned from politics and the clergy from seeking public office. In Kazakhistan, too, laws support separation of religion and state.

The stand of the United States vis-a-vis Islam is confrontational. The US has been urging nations of Western Asia to adopt a Turkish style of government, rather than mimicking Iran. Robin Wright (a Los Angeles Times correspondent) maintains that this policy is flawed, and more than anything else, it appears to be an anti-Islam platform. Graham Fuller, an area specialist, suggests that the US should not give the people of the region the sense that 'we are just trying to keep them away from |radical~ Islam. If that seems to rank high on our agenda, then we are headed for real problems'.

|Dr. Keramat Poorsoltan is an Associate Professor at Frostburg State University, Maryland, USA. The second part of this article will appear next month.~
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Author:Poorsoltan, Keramat
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Words:3430
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