TEHRAN – Iran was once considered by the Soviets as a suburb. Only after the USSR’s demise did Iran’s 1,740 kilometers of borders – including 630 kilometers of maritime border in the Caspian Sea – open up to the Caucasus and Central Asia.
With Shi’ite Azerbaijan and Sunni Turkmenistan the affinities go deeper: at least 15 million Azeris and (unofficially) 2 million Turkmen live in Iran. As for Tajikistan, it is practically an extension of Iran. But Stalin’s demential geo-designs still did not favor Iran’s influence over the ethnically close Tajiks: the great Persian-speaking cities of Bukhara and Samarcand – essential to the history of Persia – were annexed to Uzbekistan by Stalin.
The Grand Iran Society, founded in Tajikistan in 1991, is in favor of the unification of Persian-speaking populations now living in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, the defense of the Persian language, and a continuous struggle against the penetration of Russian and Turkish.
Although historically there has always been bitter ethnic rivalry between the Turkish-speaking and Persian-speaking worlds, it is important to note that the key to the unity of modern Iran was never Persian: it was the Shi’ite faith. Persian-speaking Sunnis in Bukhara, for instance, have been away from Persia for more than half a millennium, when the Safavids institutionalized Shi’ism as the state religion.
But university professors in Tehran, speaking off the record, assure that Iran’s Shi’ite identity itself is now being menaced – by demography. Kurdish and Afghan refugees have swelled the ranks of the minority Sunnis, although they make up barely more than 10 percent of the population. Khorasan – the largest Iranian province – is now predominantly Sunni. Although they are mostly Persian speakers, most Afghan refugees do not really become integral parts of Iranian society.
Washington may not be aware of it, but the fact is that Iran – forced by economic crisis – stopped long ago financing the spread of Islam, by whatever means, in Central Asia. For starters, Muslims in Central Asia are predominantly Sunni: Tehran realized it would be playing Saudi Arabia’s game. And with high rates of unemployment and inflation, the persistent growth of its own population, plus a substantial part of oil revenues directed to the defense budget, Iran obviously cannot go shopping for influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
But the new Iranian geostrategic game has been successful in its central objective of shattering Iran’s international isolation. Under Ayatollah Khomeini’s messianic universalism, Iran financed the spread of Islam everywhere in the world – from Algeria to Lebanon. Since the mid 1990s, the emphasis is to catch up in economic and technological terms with the most advanced parts of the developing world. And especially after the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, the emphasis is also to reestablish – even indirectly – a dialogue with the US.
The dialogue, nevertheless, remains blocked by the conservatives. Anti-Americanism was one of the building blocks of the Islamic revolution of 1979. And it is arguably the last remaining reason to refuse the dialogue the reformists want. Obviously the Americans do not help with the John Wayne theology of “axis of evil.” Kazem Jalali, a member of the majlis (parliament) in Tehran and self-defined supporter of Khatami, considers this accusation “a very great insult to the people of the Islamic Republic. If today the population wants democracy and human rights, other nations should help Iran, not insult us.”
As far as Tehran is concerned, the advance of Islam in Central Asia is an extremely long-term project. One example is the lack of enthusiasm Tehran had for the Islamists in Tajikistan in the 1990s – because it feared the establishment of a great Tajikistan spreading itself from Kabul to Bukhara. American and Russian fears of fundamentalists supported by Iran creating an Islamic state uniting Afghanistan, Tajikistan and parts of Uzbekistan now are no more than science fiction scenarios.
Iran, though, is very much present in the Caucasus – in Azerbaijan – but for a very good reason: a prosperous and powerful Azerbaijan under the influence of Turkey is considered to be a menace for the Islamic Republic because those 15 million Azeris living in Iran (60 percent of them don’t even speak Persian) would soon start voicing their political grievances.
Tehran still suspects that Afghanistan under the rule of Hamid Karzai is nothing but a Trojan horse for Pakistan and the US to curtail its influence and interests in Central Asia. But Iran has been cooperating with the US all along. In the beginning of the new Afghan war, in October 2001, Iranian, Turkish and American secret services had a meeting in Ankara to coordinate their annihilation of the Taliban, but it was also agreed that Iran would not admit an indefinite American presence near its borders.
Tehran and Moscow absolutely agree on that, but the geostrategic situation is slowly shifting. If during Taliban times there was a certain convergence between Iran and the US, it was because they had two enemies in common: the Taliban and Saddam Hussein (both, by the way, formerly supported by the Americans). Now they have only one – Saddam – and the US is determined to get rid of him with no help from anybody.
There was even a brief time when the rapprochement between Iran and the US opened the possibility of the cheaper and faster Iranian route for the distribution of Caspian wealth. The rabid Israeli lobby in the US killed the brief honeymoon – for nobody’s benefit except the lobby’s. Any energy specialist worth his name knows Iran is the best and the absolutely inevitable route for distributing the wealth of Central Asian states: for instance, routes and railroads from Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan’s capital, to Mashhad in northeastern Iran are essential for Turkmen exports.
Tehran still has every reason to believe the US wants to keep it isolated. The record shows this is no paranoia. The Taliban were just one piece of the puzzle. There are many others: Turkey; the massive American military presence in the Persian Gulf; Iran’s exclusion from pipelines carrying oil and gas from the Caspian; and the new American muscle displayed in Central Asia, especially the new cosy relationship with Uzbekistan’s ruthless dictator Islam Karimov. Not to mention the frozen Iranian accounts in the US, the economic sanctions imposed in 1996, the American veto of Iran’s admission to the World Trade Organization, and the relentless, vicious anti-Iranian campaign by the Israeli lobby in the US.
Even though the odds are heavily against Iran, 2,500 years of Persian diplomacy and refinement are a tremendous asset. After 20 years of bilateral tension, a security treaty with Saudi Arabia was signed in 2001. Also in 2001, Iran and Russia signed a crucial contract regarding military equipment, meaning that Iran in fact now is fully in charge of the security of Persian Gulf pipelines. The peaceful Iranian nuclear program keeps being developed with its Russian partner. Iran promised no less than US$560 million in five years for the reconstruction of Afghanistan – which gives it a right to closely monitor what’s happening in its eastern borders.
There are no Iranians whatsoever in al-Qaeda. And al-Qaeda’s money does not transit Iran – which the US still lists as a “terrorist state” and a member of the axis of evil – but through Pakistan, an ally of the US. To present Tehran as a danger to American national security is beyond rubbish. The fact of the matter is that Washington will have to realize it simply cannot snuff out a crucial player – politically, economically, culturally – in the New Great Game.