Understanding Iran: Between Central Asia and the Gulf Cooperation Council
The Islamic Republic of Iran today sits at the crossroads of Asia between the Middle East and Central Asia. This inherently places it in very close proximity to over half of the world's known energy reserves both in the form of petroleum and natural gas. Thus, an understanding of Iranian intentions and motivations in both these regions are of paramount importance for the entire global community. On a superficial level, these regions share striking similarities. Both the Central Asian States as well as the Arab Gulf States are predominantly comprised of Sunni Muslims. They also share the trait of being in direct control of a massive amount of the world's energy resources and as a result have seen immense wealth rapidly being injected into their societies, with development following at a fast pace. The ethnic and linguistic makeup of both regions is also dominated by a single group that is different to Iran’s; Turks and Turkic languages dominating the Central Asian states and Arabs and Arabic dominating the Gulf States. The states of both regions have also been influenced by two of the world strongest powers acting as a patron with Russia dominating Central Asia and the United States dominating the Gulf States. One would assume based on these traits that the regional dynamics and the manner in which they interact with Iran would be similar if not identical; the reality of the matter however, is dramatically different. As in any bilateral relation, these circumstances have obviously been contributed to by Iran and its actions. However, this examination will use Iran as the “controlled variable” in relation to the two different regions and their separate internal dynamics. Iran is essentially a rational and pragmatic actor that has been torn between two different regional systems that have their own cultural, economic, and military components that have caused it to be perceived differently by the Gulf States and the Central Asian states.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has carved out its own cultural and intellectual niche in Asia since its early history, but this does not mean that it has been capable of shaking off the cultural heritage of past regimes within its own country. The legacy of Persian superiority that was left behind by the modern school system instituted by the Pahlavi Shahs still exists and can still be seen in the current Iranian textbooks, to some extent1. The connection of Iran to its past can also be seen in traditional holidays such as Nowruz (Persian New Year) or Sizdah Be-dar (Nature Day) as they are derived from both ancient Persian traditions as well as Zoroastrianism. This situation has in some cases lead to increased tension and in other cases to closer relations for Iran and its neighbors as can been seen in Iran’s relations with both Central Asia and the Gulf States.
Iran’s cultural relations with the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states have always been a source of contention between both parties. The point of conflict is the Sunni and Shiite rift that has developed since the creation of the Islamic Republic. Following the 1979 revolution in Iran, the rhetoric in Iran began to cause increasing fear within the gulf regime as Ayatollah Khomeini declared that monarchies are incompatible with Islam and labeled them as tool of American Imperialism2. This fear was however not only fueled by the threat that Iran presented to the Gulf States but also a fear of revolution or disobedience that might come from their own Shiite populations. It is for these reasons that the GCC sided with Iraq after its invasion of Iran in 1980 and only attempted to peacefully resolve the situation when the tide of the war turned against Iraq3. The end of the war in the late eighties did not bring about stability in the region and only widened the gap between Iran and the Gulf state. Saudi Arabia for example began to enforce stricter control on the number of Iranian pilgrims during the Hajj season as well as oppressing its own Shiite populations4. The conflict however is not merely a reaction to a rhetorically aggressive Iran and fallout from the Iran-Iraq war as it also has roots within the Gulf States themselves.
A factor that has to be noted here in order to fully understand the importance of the theological conflict here is the legitimizing power that Islam has within the Gulf States. The majority of the populations within the Arab Gulf States have consistently viewed religious piety and adherence as a legitimizing factor for the ruler and it has remained the same even after the rapid development of the region. This is reinforced by the fact that some of the Gulf States base their legal system entirely on Sharia. This circumstance thus makes the protection and maintenance of the image of the regime as being an adherent of Islam a matter of paramount importance. It is for this reason that Iran is depicted as a being hostile to Arabs in Saudi texts books and reluctant observers of Islam5.
One particular event that is worth noting here was the incident that took place during the 1987 Hajj where 275 Iranian were killed during clashes with the Saudi Arabian police force due to Iranian attempts to use the Hajj as a political tool, which was an action that Saudi Arabia would not tolerate6. On a more specific note, Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most acutely affected by Iran theological rhetoric as the regime bases its legitimacy on the fact that it is in possession of Islam’s two holiest sites as is reflected in the current title of the ruler “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” as well as the alliance between the Al-Saud clan and Wahabi Islam at its roots. It is this intense association of Islam and power in the Saudi regime that has always set it in conflict with Iran in contemporary history7. Saudi Arabia itself is also an Islamic power in the world thus reinforcing its role as a rival with Iran in the international area as they both pursue to export their view of Islam to other populations. However, in the post 9/11 world radical Islam has come under direct fire causing Saudi Arabia and Iran to distance themselves to some extent from their own radical elements which has caused both of them an opportunity to nurture relations with one another. Evidence of this can been seen from two GCC summits in 2007 and 2008 both which Iran participated in by sending President Ahmadinejad in the first and its foreign minister in the second summit with both events being unprecedented.
In contrast to Iran and the Gulf states the element of contention that was present between just did not exist in Central Asia. Seventy years of Soviet rule saw the Central Asian people transformed into a secular modern society that came about as a result of strong government control of religious institutions and individuals8. This development was also long lasting, as religion remains a marginal part of the lives of most Central Asians. Thus, due to the fact that Islam is not used as a legitimizing factor for regimes in Central Asia Iran’s Islamic rhetoric is not viewed as a threat. Iran also realized this dynamic of its relationship with the Central Asian states and rarely mentioned efforts of exporting the revolution to the region and in essence adopted a secular foreign policy when dealing with them9. On a more cultural note however, the Central Asian states were culturally receptive to Persian and Iranian culture. Many of the same holidays celebrated in Iran such as Nowruz are also official holidays in all of the Central Asian states10.
Aside from the shared traits from the past, there were numerous cultural exchange programs between Iran and the Central Asian states that saw Iran exporting non-religious books, movies, journals, television programs and radio programs11. Iran has a further link in Central Asia that it does not possess in the Gulf States, which is a country that shares its language in the form of Tajikistan. The presence of Tajikistan has allowed for Iran to gain an almost instantaneous foothold in the region that it otherwise lacks in the gulf allowing for a firmer cultural link within the region. A second difference between the Gulf countries and Central Asian countries is that Iran has not been diplomatically isolated from the region, but has on the contrary been gaining greater influence with regional organizations such as the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) which has its headquarters in Tehran or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which Iran has applied to have its status changed from observer to a full member on March 24th, 2008 with the initial backing of Tajikistan12. So it clear that on a cultural level, Central Asia has a far deeper connection with Iran and lacks any cultural point of contention with it as opposed to the Gulf states and as a result has had a stable and gradually strengthened relationship with Iran that has began since their independence from the Soviet Union.
While cultural affinities and incompatibilities are a legitimate factor in determining potential outlines or foreign policy they are not the sole determinate of any nation’s actions. The actual capabilities of a country are equally as important in understanding the relationship that any nation has with its neighbors and within its regional systems. A key part of these capabilities is the military aspect and “hard power” that a country has, of which Iran has a respectable amount due to its army, navy and air force. Allegations of the development of a possible nuclear program have also added to this particular aspect of Iranian foreign policy. Here again the countries within both Central Asia and the Gulf region have reacted differently to the presence of Iran within their regional system.
Following their independence from the Soviet Union the Central Asian states were still heavily dependent on Russia. This fact does not take away from the reality that the Central Asian states were in possession of a significant amount of weapons but also a trained military force from top to bottom. This Russian “support” while appreciated by the Central Asia States was not immune to suspicion from Central Asian states that were attempting to liberate themselves from Russian influence13. This did not mean that the Central Asian states were going to turn themselves over to Iranian influence and in fact some of them did initially regard it as a potential destabilizing force within the region14. The emergence of the Central Asian states was not a scenario that only provided Iran with opportunities as it also presented it with the challenges of attempting to predict the possible actions of five new states all of whom are reasonably capable of having an influence on Iran. Whether in recognition of the potential threat that it presented to the Central Asian states or in the hope of limiting other powers from gaining influence in the region, Iran took a stand that showed its true pragmatic nature regarding the region based on reasons that directly effected its state sovereignty and security. The first being the proximity and direct land boarders with the Central Asian states making the protection and recognition of these boarders a priority in order to avoid instability in the future. Secondly, Iran is attempting to avoid antagonizing Russia due to it being one of Iran’s leading allies and its only channel into the United Nation Security Council. Thirdly, Iran is attempting to fill the gap and restore a regional order following the collapse of the Soviet Union that left the area with an anarchic vacuum.
All of these guidelines of Iranian foreign policy are clearly reflected in Iran’s stance with regard to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, its stance of non-involvement in Tajikistan’s civil war and its anti-Taliban stance even before the “War on Terror”, which shows that Iran is not a destabilizing actor in Central Asia15. Moreover, Iran began to pursue individual bilateral security treaties with each of the newly created states, making sure to never take action that could be seen as aggressive by any of the Central Asian states or Russia16. A more recent problem for Iran’s role in Central Asia has been the United States’ attempts to increase its own influence in the region. What this has meant for Iran is that a new foreign power is moving into an area that Iran has developed a high amount of influence and credibility in. The Bush administration has clearly chosen to ignore the fact Iran has opposed the Taliban long before 2001 and the threat that an unstable Afghanistan now presents to Iran17. Furthermore, the United States has also chosen to ignore the relationship it had with Iran during the Iran-Iraq where it took actions that contradicted it public rhetoric by buying American and Israeli arms to protect itself, which is an action purely motivated by pragmatism18. This American bias has however not had any significant affect on the actions of the Central Asian republics as they continue to pursue their respective independent foreign policies. As time has passed Iran has grown closer with the Central Asian states as they have become less reliant on Russian military support as well as being wary of American support while at the same time establishing their own military forces that don’t present a threat to Iran or regional security due to the friendly relations between the states of the region.
This stance that Central Asia has, comes in strong contrast to the perspective that the gulf countries have traditionally had of Iran within their regional system. Iran has traditionally been viewed a threat since the revolution in 1979 due to ideological and theological reasons. In addition, Iran’s military capabilities are another reason fear of Iran spread in the Arab Gulf States. This is of course in part due to the fact that Iran was in fact the regional protector of the Gulf States prior to the 1979 revolution as is evidenced by its involvement in the Omani civil war with 30,000 troops19, along with the fact that the Gulf States have no substantial military power to speak of. Thus, following the Iranian revolution in 1979 the Gulf States have lead them to constantly be in search of a patron nation to meet their security needs. The first such patron as was mention earlier was Iraq who with the help of the gulf states sustained an eight year war against Iran that had disastrous consequence for all involved parties and left lasting impression on Iran of being isolated in the Gulf region. This dynamic did not change following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Although there was a brief period of reconciliation between Iran and the GCC states it quickly evaporated due to the rift that only kept growing larger due to Iran’s revanchist stance regarding the Abu Musa, Little Tunb and Big Tunb islands20. It is at this point that United States stepped in to fill the security component that the GCC states required without any resistance due to fear of Iran. The United States also had it own reasons to defend the GCC states, such as its immense investments in the region, the protection of the regions energy resources and containment of Iran21. The situation has roughly remained the same, although the terrorist attacks on New York on September 11th and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 changed the regional dynamic of the region. They did so by causing the very presence of American troops in the region to change from an asset to a source of instability in the region. What this situation has lead to is an increased role for Iran within the realm of security regarding the GCC that had already been brewing in the late 1990’s such as the bi-lateral security agreements signed with Saudi Arabia in 1996 which has given hope that a relationship similar to that of “twin pillar” policy might once again return22. A main obstacle in the relationship between Iran and the GCC is the United States that is quite hard lined in its policy toward Iran. The matter has only become worse due to its suspicion of Iran’s intentions regarding its own nuclear program. It is this fear of the United States that has to some extent limited the actions of both Iran and the GCC states and stunted regional integration causing both to come under greater scrutiny from Washington and its increasing sentiment for regime change23. However, increased Iranian integration on the part of the GCC does bode well for the future of Iran’s security role with regard to the GCC.
Aside from the military power dynamic between Iran and Central Asia and Iran and the GCC the economic power aspect is part of their foreign relations that is worth examining. As was stated earlier the GCC and Central Asian states are all energy rich countries but the difference in the level of development has affected each regions relationship with Iran. The GCC for example has almost no need for the Iranian economy or expertise due to American development that has wholly transformed the region over the last thirty years. The relationship is actually quite the opposite with potential reconciliation with Iran being tied directly to increased GCC investment24. The situation with the Central Asian states on the other hand is a polar opposite of the economic relationship between Iran and the GCC. The main reason for this is the energy resources that the Central Asian states posses and their low level of development. Through these circumstances in Central Asia along with general sentiment in all of the states of avoiding development packages from Russia, Iran has been able to lead development of energy resources in the region as well as gain a vital foothold in all the markets of the region25. Iran’s geographic location within Asia is also an important part of its economic relationships. For the GCC the geographic position of Iran in economic terms means little since most of the regions exports are shipped directly to Europe, the United States and Eastern Asia independently due to it access to open water. For the Central Asian states Iran’s geographic position has given it an important role in the development of their economies. This circumstance was not something that was missed by the Iranian government and they took the initiative by signing multiple gas pipeline contracts that would take Central Asian exports to Europe through Iran26. Furthermore, Iran offers a stable regime to deal with as opposed to Afghanistan or the Caucasus region, which offer near constant instability and a lack of development opportunities. It is due to these reasons that the Central Asian countries have chosen Iran to develop their ability to export the energy resources they possess to the world through pipelines that would avoid Russia and Iran’s ports that would allow them a second route of exportation through oil and gas tankers all of which are much shorter than any other potential routes27. The evidence explaining thing strikingly different relationships between Iran and Central Asia and Iran and the GCC is quite evident since the two cases are utterly different with dependence in the latter and uselessness in the former.
On almost all fronts of state-to-state relations there are marked differences in the way Central Asian states and the GCC states relate to Iran. However, the reasons these regions respond differently to Iran is not due to dramatically different policy on the part of Iran but different priorities and domestic factors within the regimes in the GCC and Central Asia. What is quite obvious about Iran is the fact that when it is treated like a pariah and regional outsider as it was by the GCC states in the past it responds with aggressive rhetoric and confrontational foreign policy. On the other hand, if it is treated with respect as an equal member in the regional community it responds with constructive foreign policy stances and pushes for further regional integration which can be seen from Iran’s relationship with the Central Asian states. Evidence of Iran’s tendency for reconciliation can be seen from its current stance toward the GCC states that has grown more and more cordial following the initiation of the “War on Terror” and the invasion of Iraq. Iran’s pattern of responding to aggressive and marginalizing policy with hard line stances is also confirmed by the escalating nature of the standoff between the United States and Iran over its nuclear program. Hopefully, the United States can follow the actions that the Central Asian republics have taken in the past and the more recent actions of the GCC states and attempt to appeal to Iran though constructive rhetoric and policy that will treat Iran as an equal member in the world order. In conclusion, it is clear that the seemingly contradictory foreign policy stances of the Islamic Republic of Iran are clearly defined by two rules; the two rule being that if it is treated like a equal member of the region it responds constructively, while when it is isolated and marginalized it responds with an aggressive foreign policy and hard line stances.
Afrasiabi, Kaveh, and Abbas Maleki. "Iran's Foreign Policy after 11 September." The Brown Journal of World Affairs Vol.9(2003): 255-265.
Al-Suwaidi, Jamal S. Iran and the Gulf: A Search for Stability. Abu Dhabi, UAE: The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, 1996.
Badeeb, Saeed B.. Saudi-Iranian Relations, 1932–82. London: Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies and Echo, 1993.
Blank, Stephen. “Iran and the SCO: A Match Made in Dushanbe or in Moscow?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, Vol. 10, No.9(2008): 9-11.
Ehteshami, Anoushiravan. "Iran's International Posture after the Fall of Baghdad." The Middle East Journal. Vol.58(2004): 179-194.
Freij, Hanna Yousif, "State Interests vs. the Umma: Iranian Policy in Central Asia." The Middle East Journal Vol. 50(1996): 71-83.
Haseeb, Khair el-Din. Arab-Iranian Relations. Beirut: Centre for Arab Unity Studies, 1998.
Marat, Erica. “Celebrating Novruz in Central Asia”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, Vol. 9, No.6 (2007): 13-14.
Menashri, David. Central Asia meets the Middle East. London ; Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1998.
Peimani, Hooman. Regional security and the future of Central Asia : the competition of Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998.
Ramazani, R.K., "Ideology and Pragmatism in Iran's Foreign Policy." The Middle East Journal Vol. 58(2004): 549-559.
Victor, David G., Amy M. Jaffe, and Mark H. Hayes. Natural Gas and Geopolitics: From 1970 to 2040. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
1.) Khair el-Din Haseeb. Arab-Iranian Relations. Beirut: Centre for Arab Unity Studies, 1998, p.145-146.
2.) Jamal S. Al-Suwaidi. Iran and the Gulf: A Search for Stability. Abu Dhabi, UAE: The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, 1996, p. 86.
5.) Khair el-Din Haseeb. Arab-Iranian Relations. Beirut: Centre for Arab Unity Studies, 1998, p. 183.
6.) R.K. Ramazani, "Ideology and Pragmatism in Iran's Foreign Policy." The Middle East Journal Vol. 58(2004), p.555.
7.) Jamal S. Al-Suwaidi. Iran and the Gulf: A Search for Stability. Abu Dhabi, UAE: The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, 1996, p.91.
8.) Hooman Peimani. Regional security and the future of Central Asia : the competition of Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998, p. 55.
9.) Ibid, p. 53.
10.) Erica Marat. “Celebrating Novruz in Central Asia”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, Vol. 9, No.6 (2007), p. 12.
11.) Hooman Peimani. Regional security and the future of Central Asia : the competition of Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998, p. 53.
12.) Stephen Blank. “Iran and the SCO: A Match Made in Dushanbe or in Moscow?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, Vol. 10, No.9(2008), p.9.
13.) Hooman Peimani. Regional security and the future of Central Asia : the competition of Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998, p. 70.
14.) David Menashri. Central Asia meets the Middle East. London ; Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1998, p. 87-88.
15.) Hanna Yousif Freij, "State Interests vs. the Umma: Iranian Policy in Central Asia." The Middle East Journal Vol. 50(1996), p. 82-83.
16.) Hooman Peimani. Regional security and the future of Central Asia : the competition of Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998, p. 80.
17.) Anoushiravan Ehteshami. "Iran's International Posture after the Fall of Baghdad." The Middle East Journal. Vol.58(2004), p.187.
18.) R.K. Ramazani, "Ideology and Pragmatism in Iran's Foreign Policy." The Middle East Journal Vol. 58(2004), p. 556.
19.) Saeed B.Badeeb. Saudi-Iranian Relations, 1932–82. London: Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies and Echo, 1993, p.130.
20.) Kaveh Afrasiabi and Abbas Maleki. "Iran's Foreign Policy after 11 September." The Brown Journal of World Affairs Vol.9(2003), p. 263.
21.) Jamal S. Al-Suwaid. Iran and the Gulf: A Search for Stability. Abu Dhabi, UAE: The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, 1996, p. 91.
22.) Kaveh Afrasiabi and Abbas Maleki. "Iran's Foreign Policy after 11 September." The Brown Journal of World Affairs Vol.9(2003), p. 263.
23.) Anoushiravan Ehteshami. "Iran's International Posture after the Fall of Baghdad." The Middle East Journal. Vol.58(2004), p.194.
24.) Jamal S. Al-Suwaidi. Iran and the Gulf: A Search for Stability. Abu Dhabi, UAE: The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, 1996, p.343.
25.) Hooman Peimani. Regional security and the future of Central Asia : the competition of Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998, p. 107-108.
26.) David G. Victor, Amy M. Jaffe, and Mark H. Hayes. Natural Gas and Geopolitics: From 1970 to 2040. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 212.
27.) Hooman Peimani. Regional security and the future of Central Asia : the competition of Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998, p. 110-111.