Central Asia at a Strategic Crossroads


ByShahjakhan Islomov

At the present time, major global powers are competing for influence in Central Asia.  We know that in the spring of 2022,  relations between Iran and Central Asia reached their peak, with the presidents of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan all visiting  Tehran. For example,  in May, the President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon  visited Tehran for the first time since 2013. Prior to Rahmon’s arrival in Iran, the two countries had launched a drone factory in Tajikistan for manufacturing Iranian-made Ababil-2 drones. This development  is seen as Dushanbe’s response to Kyrgyzstan’s purchase of Turkish-made  Bayraktar drones last year. Although the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev has not visited Iran this year, Tashkent is also in Tehran’s view.  On June 20, at the initiative of the Iranian side, a telephone conversation was held between the foreign ministers of the two countries to enhance cooperation in various fields. Like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan is mainly interested in Iran’s transit potential. One of the priorities of the current administration of Uzbekistan in foreign policy is to access the ports of Iran, the Gulf, and South Asia. On September 14, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi paid an official visit to Uzbekistan to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. In addition, talks between Uzbekistan and  Iran were held, resulting in the signing of 18 documents covering various fields of cooperation. The most prominent agreements are as follows:

• Agreement on the simplification of visa procedures for businesspeople, academics and  tourists.

• Agreement on a bilateral exemption for holders of diplomatic passports from visa requirements.

• Cooperation program in the field of tourism.

• Memorandum of understanding in the oil, gas and petrochemical industries.

• Memorandum of understanding for cargo transportation and transit through the port of Chabahar

• Cooperation program between the ministries of foreign affairs.

In addition to the aforementioned,  Iran’s full SCO membership has created additional opportunities for Central Asian countries to expand their ties with the Iranian government. This multilateral forum will allow dialogue and cooperation on many crucial fronts such as security and economic investment projects. Furthermore, through cultural exchange programs, Iran will be able to spread its political ideology among Shiite communities in Central Asia and use soft power to project a positive image to win hearts and minds in this region which will help it in overcoming the isolation it has faced because of its nuclear program, its interferences in sovereign countries, and its poor human rights record.

Despite this isolation, Iran’s geographical position means that it will always be an attractive proposition for many countries that want access to land and sea trade routes. The Central Asian countries fit this description given their landlocked nature, also establishing corridors with Iran will give them to access to the Gulf. This eagerness for corridors was reflected in the signing of the Ashgabat Agreement in April 2016, which laid out the modalities for a multimodal transport corridor agreement  between the governments of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Oman, India and Pakistan to facilitate the transportation of goods from Central Asia to the Gulf. Given China’s penetration into Central Asia via its Belt and Road Initiative, it may also join the Ashgabat Agreement to further cement its footprint in the region. Moreover, given India’s involvement in the agreement, it is a further incentive for China to join and exert its influence in this vastly important geopolitical region, especially as New Delhi is a competitor and is seen in Beijing as part of the US axis to contain its economic expansion.  

It is important to note that the Raisi government has embraced a “Look East” foreign policy to mitigate the impact of sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. Part of this new direction has been to reinvigorate relations with Central Asia as well as welcoming Central Asian leaders to Tehran which can be viewed in the context of this new Iranian approach to survive and end the pressures and its isolation at the regional and international levels.

Gulf Ramps up Its Outreach to Central Asia

Against the backdrop of Iran expanding its relations and influence in Central Asia, on  September 7, 2022, the GCC foreign ministers met with their Central Asian counterparts in Riyadh. The event was attended by the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The meeting witnessed the inauguration of the GCC-Central Asia Strategic Dialogue, a new initiative to expand cooperation in multiple fields. Although, the initiative has been in the planning stage for some time, recent developments meant that it had to be put into action.

The foreign ministers consented to a Joint Action Plan for Strategic Dialogue and Cooperation for 2023-2027 that will include security dialogue, economic and investment cooperation, and fast-track plans to advance bilateral and multilateral relations. The potential benefits for both sides are huge, given that they are among the world’s most resource-rich regions, especially in oil and gas. Hence, the GCC and Central Asia could contribute to energy security globally.

Despite these obvious benefits, there are a number of challenges, especially in terms of geographical distance and the implementation of infrastructure and energy projects. It is likely that other parties might seek to partake in these ambitious projects to provide knowledge and technical insights. Not to mention that the Central Asian countries have ratcheted up their relations with Iran, and the latter is extremely eager to embed its influence in a crucial strategic and geopolitical region which is also witnessing competition between the United States and China. It will be interesting to see how these countries balance relations between adversaries, especially between the GCC and Iran, knowing the tensions that exist between the two because of Tehran’s nuclear program and belligerent policies in the region. The Central Asian countries need to be aware that all their joint projects could collapse if the nuclear talks in Vienna fail completely and further sanctions are imposed on Iran, thus, they need to be careful and wise and gravitate toward more trusted partners in the Gulf which offer it great economic opportunities.

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Shahjakhan Islomov
Shahjakhan Islomov
Student at the Faculty of World Politics at Tashkent State University