The Eurasia region of which Central Asia is a vital part, has become hotly contested territory for influence. There are many players involved of which Russia, Iran and China are the principal actors. Their policies will have profound impact on the region.
As the US cobbles together another “coalition of the willing,” ostensibly to shut down one more al-Qaeda type project it created as a pretext for perpetuating its presence in the Muslim East, many anti-imperialists and anti-Zionists had their ears tuned to Tajikistan. The former Soviet Republic was hosting an annual gathering of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at which Russia and China are the principal players. Other Central Asian countries, formerly part of the USSR, are more for decoration than any substantive contribution to policy formulation. In fact it would be wrong to state that Central Asian states are members of the SCO. It is the ruling families of those countries that are part of the SCO — and this in order to safeguard their illegitimate grip on power as well ward off Russian and Chinese meddling in their affairs. It is also seen as somehow providing them protection from their own irate citizens.
The SCO summits act as an annual forum for discussion between Russia, China and Islamic Iran. The latter has an observatory status at the SCO. In light of another Western military aggression in the Muslim East, many people were expecting grandiose statements after the meeting between Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nothing of this sort happened. In private Rouhani and Putin perhaps discussed specific potential steps both could take in order to counter Washington’s desperate moves to retain its neo-colonial dominance of the Muslim East.
Whatever the specifics, the reality is that for Moscow and Tehran to produce a tangible, productive long-term strategic cooperation, both have to address their strategic visions in the Caucasus and Central Asia. For this to happen, many taboos have to be broken at the intellectual level, something that Moscow is stubbornly resisting to do.
Russia views the countries of the former Soviet Union as its strategic and privileged sphere of influence. Moscow believes that it alone can and should handle all matters relating to Central Asia and the Caucasus. Russia’s policy on Central Asia and the Caucasus is very similar to the US position on the Muslim East. Just as the US refuses to allow anyone else to exercise any form of tangible influence/independence in the Muslim East, Russia refuses to do the same in the Central Asian region if it is not 99% in line with Moscow’s interests.
Even though Iran and Russia have great potential to cooperate on strategic matters in the Caucasus and Central Asia, the cooperation is not anywhere near the required level. This is primarily because Moscow only sees the current Soviet-era groomed power elites in Central Asia and the Caucasus as their most reliable tools. Islamic Iran on the other hand, does not view the current unelected and corrupt regimes in the region as entities with whom it can build a long-term strategic relationship, and rightly so. The Central Asian despots would sell Tehran at the crucial moment to anyone willing to wire a decent sum of money into their personal bank accounts.
Moscow-Tehran strategic differences can best be seen not through Russia’s refusal to deliver Iranian purchased and paid for S-300 anti-aircraft systems in 2010, but through the Tajik civil war in the early-1990s. At that time, Islamic Iran backed the popular Islamic opposition movement led by the prominent Islamic scholar Said Abdullo Nuri and Russia stuck to backing the current autocrat Emomali Rakhmonov.
Moscow wrongly assumes that for Central Asia and the Caucasus to remain safe from NATO domination, it must rely on old allies no matter how costly this could potentially turn out to be. This is a shortsighted policy, as sooner or later people will begin resisting authoritarian rule and Moscow’s current allies are a perfect pretext for Washington to enter the stage and win the sympathy of the people under the fake slogan of human rights and democracy.
It seems Islamic Iran is wise not to bet on these feudal regimes whose shelf life has expired or about to do so. Tehran wants to build its relationships in Central Asia and the Caucasus with untainted, fresh and anti-imperialist forces. Tehran correctly realizes that Central Asia and the Caucasus are its immediate neighborhood where it can exercise influence only by siding with the popular current, not the elites. Moscow on the other hand does not want to experiment with fresh and new partners. This policy will be utilized by Western powers against Moscow in the near future.
Yes, the current regimes provide Russia with a great deal of predictability as Moscow knows the behavioral pattern of the products of the Soviet nomenklatura (Soviet era bureaucracy) well. Predictability should not be mistaken for stability. Washington committed the same mistake in the Arab world and it got the process called the Islamic Awakening (aka the Arab Spring). No matter how hard the US is trying to turn the process of the Islamic Awakening in the Muslim East into a controlled project, the reality is that Washington’s position will never be as firm as it was prior to 2010. It appears that the Kremlin thinks that it can avoid Washington’s fate in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Moscow assumes that due to the West’s relatively soft response in Ukraine, it will be even softer in Central Asia and the Caucasus. This analogical thinking fails to take into consideration the fact that Ukraine is too close to the immediate borders of Western Europe; therefore, NATO’s preference is to keep things as calm as possible near its home base. Central Asia and the Caucasus are distant Muslim regions where chaos and bloodshed will not affect the West as much as Russia’s immediate borders.
Until the above perspectives (as well as several other strategic matters) are addressed through comprehensive negotiations and practical steps, the relationship between Moscow and Tehran will continue to be on an ad-hoc basis. This model of relationship is vulnerable, primarily for Moscow. As tensions between Russia and the West rise due to troubles in Ukraine, Moscow will need principled allies on its side, not those that build policies based on sinister motives. By the time the Kremlin realizes this, it may be too late.
The reality is that Russia possesses an advantage over the West in Central Asia and the Caucasus in terms of hard power; in the realm of soft-power, the West has far greater appeal for people of the region because, for historical reasons, the population of Central Asia and the Caucasus has experienced the iron rule of Moscow when they were under Soviet yoke. Russia’s current cautious relationship with Islamic Iran opens a soft-power gap in its regional position. It appears that the unreasonable and semi-orientalist perspective on Islamic Iran will change only when Western payback for the crisis in Ukraine turns up in Central Asia or the Caucasus. Circumstances point to the fact that Western response to Russian policy in Ukraine will be in Central Asia or the Caucasus. Until that happens, relations between Tehran and Moscow will remain as they are today.