US-Iran Conflict and its Impact on Central Asia: An Assessment
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Research Assistant, VIF

The Central Asian Republics (CARs) and The Islamic Republic of Iran have followed a mutual policy of increased political and economic cooperation in recent times, which is primarily based on age-old ethnocultural and historical ties between the two regions. However, being predominantly influenced by one or another dominant superpower such as Russia, China, and to certain extent, USA, the CARs have been cautious about reaping closed ties with Iran in light of recent US pressure on Iran and its possible implications on these Republics.

Russia and China are the big players in Central Asia, and they have geopolitical rivalry with USA with regard to their respective influence in Asia. In May 2018, USA put political and economic pressure on Iran, followed by the renewed economic sanctions resulting from the former’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran Nuclear Deal signed in 2015 between Iran and P5+1 (USA, Russia, China, France, United Kingdom and Germany), and European Union. It was also endorsed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). 1

This has compelled Iran to look out for external support primarily from the two major Eurasian political and economic powers, Russia and China. Iran has also focused on its Central Asian neighbors, who are closely associated with Russia and China’s political, economic and military initiatives. Leaders of the Central Asian countries are well aware that the consequences of the potential armed conflicts between the United States and Iran would adversely affect the security structure of the Eurasian region.

Background

Since 2005, Iran holds an observer status of Russia and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) - which is a regional Organisation formed in 2001, working towards promoting a framework of active cooperation in economy, security, politics, and regional stability, among many other areas of strategic interest.2 Except Turkmenistan, other four CARs are members of this regional grouping. Iran has applied for the full membership in 2008, but instead of having backing from Russia, it did not gain permanent membership of SCO.3 However, India and Pakistan applied for full membership in 2015 and have been granted the same in 2017.

An international crisis transpired in the Persian Gulf in June 2019, which included a series of attacks on oil tankers and the bringing down of a US Global Hawk surveillance drone in which the former event coincided with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Central Asia. On June 13-14, he visited Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to participate in the 19th the Summit of Heads of states of SCO, where he met with Russian and Chinese Presidents Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping respectively. At the Summit, Iranian President Rouhani, in his speech refuted the US claims of Iran’s involvement in the attacks on the oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. He also described US as a threat to global stability.4 He stressed that Iran as a nation is more unified against the ‘unilateral economic terrorism’ spread by United States. He used the SCO platform to accuse the US of undermining regional and global stability and urged all members of the summit to unite against unilateralism.5 Having noted the responses from the Summit, it became clearly visible that Iran may continue to proliferate its resistance policy towards US through the SCO member states. 6

Iran’s full membership process of SCO was in a frozen state until 2015 due to UN sanctions against it. However, the signing and implementation of the JCPOA in 2015, provided for a lifting of these sanctions on Iran, but some other issues still continued to hamper Iran’s bid for full membership SCO. Primary causes among these were Iran’s complicated relationships with Tajikistan and Pakistan which are full members, and as SCO Charter allows admission of new members to the SCO only with unanimous approval, therefore it is pending till date.

Just after the culmination of the SCO Summit in Bishkek, Tajikistan hosted the 5th Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Dushanbe on June 15-16, 2019. CICA is an initiative launched in 2002 on the behest of founder President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. It comprises 27 states, including China, Russian Federation, the Republic of Korea, India, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and the countries of Central Asia, except Turkmenistan. President Rouhani also attended the Summit and in his speech at the CICA Summit, in a threatening statement to other signatories of JCPOA, he said that “In the absence of positive comment from other parties, Iran will continue working toward ending its adherence to some of its obligations under the nuclear deal to terminate the implementation of some of its obligations”.7 It seems that President Rouhani once again used a regional platform to vocalize its anti-US sentiment. However, these organizations have no stake in JCPOA, but leading members of groupings do have dangerous agenda against USA’s hegemonic demonstrations in Asia.

Consequently, immediately upon the conclusion of the CICA summit, the Fars News Agency reported that Iran had exceeded the 300 kilograms of 3.67 percent enriched uranium, for which it was prohibited under the 2015 JCPOA agreement. CICA summit in Dushanbe adopted a declaration on the behest of China and Russia to encourage all other parties to ultimately realize their obligations towards Iran’s nuclear program after the US withdrew from it in 2018. Rouhani’s objective of attending the SCO and CICA summits in Bishkek and Dushanbe was primarily focused on mitigating Iran’s isolation. As the final documents of these summits displayed, Iran managed to achieve individual successes by garnering the support of Russia, China, and the Central Asian states.

Implications

During his visit to Central Asia, President Rouhani made diplomatic efforts to encourage the support of Russia and China In order to reduce the impacts of extreme American economic sanctions, which have adversely impacted Iranian economy, resulting in a steep drop in Iranian currency, Rial. Also, there has been 37 percent rise in inflation and around 40 to 60 percent higher cost of commodities such as medicines and food items.

President Trump’s ‘maximum pressure campaign’ against Iran has forced the latter to find accordance with Russia led economic initiatives in Eurasia. In June 2019, the Iranian parliament ratified the free trade zone agreement with Russia led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which includes two Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, along with Russia, Belarus, and Armenia. However, currently, Russia represents highest percentage of the EEU’s gross domestic production (GDP), but with the addition of some other CARs such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, its credibility as an economic organization would further strengthen. This organization has also been referred as an instrument of maintaining Russian economic influence in the post-Soviet space. 8

Iran is still doubtful about attaining full membership in the SCO after being rejected twice in 2016 and 2017. Tajikistan has been a significant obstruction in Iran’s full membership of SCO. However, being ethno-linguistically similar, relations between Tajikistan and Iran had worsened in 2015 when Tajik authorities blamed Iran of supporting the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Abdukhalim Nazarzoda, a former IRPT member and deputy defense minister had attempted a failed coup to overthrow the President Rahmon Government in September 2015. As a result, Supreme Court of Tajikistan declared IRPT as a terrorist organization.9 Tajikistan has also indicted Iran of providing training to the Islamic militants from Tajikistan and protested against Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s gesture of welcoming the IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri, who fled Tajikistan due to political persecution, in December 2015.10 Iran had also played a role in Tajik Civil War in 1990s. However, it had denied all accusations made by Tajikistan, which further deteriorated the relationship between the two states.

At this point in escalated US-Iran confrontation, full membership of the SCO remains a strategic objective for Iran. It expects that accession to SCO would allow more leverage to Iran’s Central Asian Policy along with building advance trade and economic relations with Russia and China. Iran wants to take advantage of SCO platform in order to attack US in a global context and also to make Central Asia an anti-US outpost. The leaders of Iran claim that the Central Asian regional security structure should be established without an intervention from the United States on the basis of carpeting a balance between Russian and Chinese interests, which Tehran finds essential towards achieving its objectives. SCO membership would also cripple the impact of US economic sanctions on Iran by encouraging investment in Iran’s energy sectors by SCO members. Iran also thinks that full membership of SCO would help it to curtail US influence in Central Asia by maximizing cooperation with Central Asian states.

In spite of showcasing their full support to Iran’s position on the nuclear deal during the SCO and CICA summits, both Russia and China are not adequately disposed to open the doors of the SCO to Iran. The apprehension behind Russia and China not granting full SCO membership status to Iran might arise from the fact that it would further underline the ‘geostrategic confrontation’ between the SCO’s members, which would dilute the organizations' integrity. As has been seen in the outcome of the SCO and CICA summits that the US-Iran conflict has started to resonate in the Central Asian region.11

Conclusion

Central Asian governments are fully aware of the situation that Iran is crucial to the security and stability of their region. A destabilized Iran combating a large-scale military conflict in the Persian Gulf would have a direct impact on the security of the crisis-prone Central Asian countries. Keeping this in mind, Central Asian states have to adopt a balanced policy that would neither deter US nor Iran. Because being politically and economically nascent states, CARs are not in a position to face any confrontation on their security fronts. Russia and China share the border with Central Asia. Therefore, any security flaw arising from the region would have an indispensable impact on these two superpowers as well. Therefore, they have also adopted a more balanced approach towards Iran’s sentiments related to the JCPOA and US withdrawal from it. The five CARs prefer to maintain a balanced position on the Iranian nuclear issue by upholding its right to use nuclear technology but only for peaceful purposes.

References
  1. Smith Dan (2019), ‘The US withdrawal from the Iran deal: One year on’, SIPRI commentary, 7 May 2019. https://www.sipri.org/commentary/expert-comment/2019/us-withdrawal-iran-deal-one-year
  2. Scita Jacopo (2018), ‘Iran and the SCO: A Long Political Gestation’, London School of Economics, Middle East Center Blog, 30 August 2018. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mec/2018/08/30/iran-and-the-sco-a-long-political-gestation/
  3. Noi, A. (2012). ‘Iran and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in the Changing International Environment’, Indian Journal of Asian Affairs, 25(1/2), 43-58. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41950520
  4. Palickova Agata (2019), ‘Iran-US tensions dominate two Central Asia summits’, Euraactive, 18 June 2019. https://www.euractiv.com/section/central-asia/news/iran-us-tensions-dominate-two-central-asia-summits/
  5. ‘Iranian President Tells SCO Summit That Trump Poses 'Serious Risk' To Stability’, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, 14 june 2019. https://www.rferl.org/a/shanghai-cooperation-organization-starts-summit-in-bishkek/29998881.html
  6. Botobekov Uran (2019), ‘Impact of the US-Iran Confrontation on Central Asia’, CSS Blog Network 16 October 2019. https://isnblog.ethz.ch/international-relations/impact-of-the-us-iran-confrontation-on-central-asia
  7. ‘Iran's President Says Tehran Will Stop Implementing Some Obligations Under Nuclear Deal’, June 15, 2019, RFE/RL News, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/iran-s-president-says-tehran-will-stop-implementing-some-obligations-under-nuclear-deal/30000825.html
  8. Botobekov Uran (2019), ‘Impact of the US-Iran Confrontation on Central Asia’, CSS Blog Network 16 October 2019. https://isnblog.ethz.ch/international-relations/impact-of-the-us-iran-confrontation-on-central-asia
  9. Farangis Najibullah (2017), Tajikistan's Banned Islamic Party Claims Former Members Hit By 'Wave Of Arrests', RFE/RL Tajikistan, 11 June 2018. https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-s-banned-islamic-irpt-party--members-hit-by-wave-arrests/29283941.html
  10. ‘Tajikistan accuses Iran of involvement in 1990s civil war: TV documentary’, World News 9 August 2017, Reuter Dushanbe. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tajikistan-iran/tajikistan-accuses-iran-of-involvement-in-1990s-civil-war-tv-documentary-idUSKBN1AP0ZB
  11. Lim Kevjn (2016), ‘Iran's Shanghai Dream, The Perks and Pitfalls of Joining China's Security Club’, Foreign Affairs Jounral 25 July 2016. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2016-07-25/irans-shanghai-dream
  12. (The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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