Muhammad Tahir

Published on: Central Asia and Caucasus Analyst Washington
The President of Turkmenistan, Sapamurat Niyazov, is a man full of surprises. He again got the attention of many western observers by hosting one of the most criticized leaders in the world, Iranian President Mahmood Ahmadinejad at a very critical moment. Ahmedinajad paid an official visit to Turkmenistan on July 24-25, 2006, while his foreign policies, including alleged support of the Lebanon-based paramilitary group Hizbollah, was being strongly criticized by the international community, especially major Western powers. The intentions behind this two-day, unannounced, official visit with no concrete agenda, raised many questions among western observers since there was also no major agreement reached during this surprise visit.
BACKGROUND: The relationship between Iran and Turkmenistan officially began shortly after the Turkmenistans independence in 1991, when they officially inaugurated diplomatic missions. Since then, Iran has become an important player among nations fighting to increase their influence in Central Asian countries. Iran, despite its reputation of being a repressive Islamic regime, had an advantageous position to take this struggle one step ahead of the others, since it was also welcomed by Turkmenistan, because, in contrast to western countries, Tehran had no interest in the political system of Turkmenistan.
Iran also received credit from the Niyazov administration, because of its humanitarian assistance while Turkmenistan as a young nation was facing a tremendous shortage of food and other daily needs. Niyazov still occasionally recalls this support, as he did in this meeting, sending especially warm regards to former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom Niyazov calls brother Hashemi. Over the last several years, Iran has worked hard to increase its cultural influence by opening cultural houses not only in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, but also in the Mary region. Besides these activities, the two countries not only share a 992 km-long border, but also both have autocratic regimes, and made important progress in bilateral trade that reportedly surpassed US$1 billion in 2005. Iran, which is today the second biggest buyer of Turkmen natural gas, electricity, liquefied gas and polypropylene after Russia, purchased some 5.8 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan in 2005. The two leaders indicated their intention of increasing this volume to more than 13 bcm in coming years.
Yet most observers believe the relationship of these two countries is more about politics than about trade and economics. Iran and Turkmenistan are two isolated nations in a region that have a common ground of understanding in such fields as strict control over civil and human rights issues. Moreover, the Iranian Government has additional reasons to be interested in cooperation with Turkmenistan. From the day Tehran increasingly became at target of Western powers, it had to increase monitoring the activities of ethnic minorities inside the country, whom Tehran views as potential threats to the central regime. Hence, from the Iranian point of view, Turkmenistan is important since more than four million ethnic Turkmens live in Iran. The Turkmen have a history of resistance against the Iranian regime, and also follow the Sunni faith of Islam, while Shia Islam is Irans state religion. After recent developments in neighboring countries, the ethnic Turkmen factor seems to gain importance. After Saddam Husseins regime fell in Iraq, Iranian Kurds and Arabs have increasingly been inspired by developments which made minorities an important part of that countrys governmental structure. Aside from these, Baluchis and Azeris have grown more restive as well. But so far no signs of open dissatisfaction have been demonstrated by the ethnic Turkmens. Tehran attributes this to their lack of external support.
In addition to increasingly high levels of dialogue with Ashgabat, Iran has also been seen taking practical measures to separate the two societies, by encouraging the resettlement of non-Turkmen communities on the Iranian side of the Turkmen border, thereby blocking direct contact between Turkmen societies living on both sides. In addition, Iran this Summer signed an agreement of non-interference in internal affairs with Turkmenistan.
IMPLICATIONS: Western observers connect Ahmadinejads visit to Turkmenistan as part of a confidence-building measure between the two countries, which could help Tehran make sure that in the event of foreign aggression toward Iran, the territories of Turkmenistan will not be used against it. Besides the declaration indicating non-interference in each others internal affairs and sovereignty, the sides also agreed on a document which says that the sides will not allow its territories to be used against each other. This was one important section of the document signed during the meeting of the Iranian and Turkmen leaders, which was previously expected by many to be focused on the legal status of the Caspian sea, as it remains an important issue between these two countries. In a situation like this, this visit was seen by many political observers a kind of political show by Ahmedinejad, as part of his wider spread of propaganda directed against the allegations of Western countries toward Iran, and, in particular, related to recent developments in the Middle East.
In some respects, this intention of Ahmedinejda was reflected in the meeting as well, since not only he but Turkmen President Niyazov have been seen calling Western countries to use dialogue to solve international disagreements, though naming any particular conflict. According to a semi-official Turkmen news source, Turkmenistan.ru, both leaders agreed with a document that states the importance of the central role of the UN in resolving international problems, as well as solving conflicts through political dialogue, not through the use of force. The Turkmen President expressed his support Irans stance towards solving international problems with peaceful means as well as the orientation of Irans foreign policy. The last paragraph especially the expression of support for Iranian foreign policy by the Turkmen government, raises eyebrows since Iran is criticized by the international community on issues such as its support of Hizbollah,, its nuclear policy, and its position rejecting the state of Israels right to exist, and allegations of its involvement with terrorist groups. But some former high level officials in the Turkmen government say that from the Turkmen point of view, this phrase likely contains no message of real support for Iranian policy regarding the Middle East conflict.
Niyazov does not have a deep knowledge of international diplomacy, said former Foreign Minister of Turkmenistan Avdi Kuliyev. Sometimes he can make mistakes, which, if made by another leader, could create a major political scandal. As an example, Kuliyev cited the occasion where Niyazov expressed support for Pakistans Kashmir policy at a meeting with Pakistani officials, following which he also expressed support for Indias Kashmir policy while meeting with Indian officials. The former diplomat also said many international leaders do not take such comments made by Niyazov seriously.
CONCLUSIONS: Despite minor agreements, this previously unannounced official visit, more than anything else, seems to constitute a political show by the Iranian President on an occasion when he is widely criticized internationally regarding Irans alleged support of Hizbollah, and the countrys nuclear program. But the question of what Turkmenistan intended to gain by hosting Ahmedinejad, remains unclear. However, some local experts say that Turkmenistan wants to find an alternative transit route for its natural gas and other goods, as it looks for energy export options that could bypass Russia. But such intentions also would have little chance in practice, since this will be opposed by world powers. In a situation like this, aside from an opening ceremony of new buildings at the Gudan-Bajirgan customs point on the border, no major progress has been made during these two-day official meetings. The reaction of the international community to this visit is still in question since the entire world was busy following the Israel-Palestine and Israel-Lebanon conflict.
AUTHORS BIO: Muhammad Tahir is a Prague-based writer and journalist specializing in Central Asia and is also the author of a book on Iran, Illegal Dating-A Journey into the Private Life of Iran.

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