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Turkmenistan-Iran: “Condemned” to Friendship

With few other friends, Turkmen and Iranian leaders find there is more that unites than divides them.
By IWPR staff

For all their common border and their cultural links, Iran and Turkmenistan are a world apart. The recent history of the Islamic state has little in common with the former Soviet republic that retains many of the features of its communist past, and is dominated by the personality cult surrounding its idiosynchratic president.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, each of the two countries was forced to find out more about its neighbour, which had hitherto been an unknown quantity. Since then, relations have grown mainly on the basis of economic ties, with their differing political visions left to one side.

Regional experts interviewed by IWPR suggest it’s a relationship based on both convenience and necessity. The two states have to deal with each other since they share a nearly 1,000 kilometre-long border, and it makes sense for them not to fall out since both already have enough difficult neighbours.

As a result, the July election of the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president, which caused some consternation elsewhere, is unlikely to have ruffled any feathers in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat.

Even before his election, Ahmadinejad said his foreign policy would focus primarily on the country’s immediate neighbours, which of course include Turkmenistan.

Since the relationship is primarily commerce-based, skirting the huge ideological divide between the two regimes, Ahmadinejad’s conservative views are not likely to come into play.

Iran is sandwiched between Iraq and Afghanistan, each of which is suffering continuing instability and has a significant United States troop presence.

The Turkmen leader Saparmurad Niyazov, or Turkmenbashi, is politically estranged both from his former Soviet Central Asian neighbours and from Russia, although he needs the latter so that he can export gas. In late 2002, Turkmenbashi fell out badly with Uzbekistan after effectively accusing its leaders of helping an attempt on his life, and relations are only just beginning to be repaired.

Rustem Safronov, a Turkmenistan expert based in Moscow, thinks Tehran and Ashgabat are “condemned to friendship” because of their isolation.

According to William Sabii, a Washington-based expert on Iran interviewed by IWPR, Tehran has an interest in building a strategic partnership with Turkmenistan, both because this could strengthen its position as a major regional power, and for more pragmatic reasons to do with oil, gas and trade routes.

Significantly, Turkmenbashi avoids talking about domestic Iranian politics, and for example has not met representatives from substantial ethnic Turkmen population in northeastern Iran. Even though he claims to exercise a sort of pastoral leadership over the Turkmen diaspora, he clearly has no wish to stir up separatist feeling over the border.

A staff member at Turkmenistan’s foreign ministry, who did not want to be named, explained how the non-intervention deal worked, “At any difficult time, the Iranian regime will always support Turkmenbashi. So as long as Turkmenistan remains under his shadow, there will be no attempt to threaten Iran’s territorial integrity.”

In a 2003 book on nation-building, President Niazov said, “We have never encountered a moment’s misunderstanding [with Iran] in the past 12 years. We do not interfere with their affairs, nor do they in ours…. We have no mutual suspicions.”

Economic cooperation is a cornerstone of this political harmony. Iranian companies are major players in Turkmenistan, buying fruit and other foodstuffs for export, laying roads, and offering their experience in building the oil and gas sector. Trade has doubled in the past two years.

Turkmenistan has substantial reserves of gas and some oil, but it remains almost entirely dependent on its former masters in Moscow for exports of the former. There is periodic wrangling over the price the Turkmen should get for gas pumped into Russia’s large network of pipelines.

In 2000, a new pipeline – albeit a modest one – was opened to take gas south to Iran. That provided the Turkmen with a little more leverage for negotiating with Russia’s gas giant Gazprom.

Other recent big project includes a major dam, which started work in April to store the waters of the river Tejen that marks the Turkmen-Iranian border, and make them available to farmers on both sides.

At a less official level, the relationship is less smooth, with cultural differences making themselves felt. Although both populations are predominantly Muslim, the Sunni Turkmen’s experience under secular communist rule gives them a different outlook from people who lived under first the Shah and then the Shia theocratic state.

Deeper ethnic and historical differences mean there is less common ground between the two countries than, for example, between Iranians and the Persian-speakers of Tajikistan.

In Ashgabat there is a certain frustration that some Iranians come across the border for all the wrong reasons - to enjoy the access to alcohol and prostitution they can’t find at home.

But such concerns are unlikely to bother either country’s leaders, who appear ready to continue their pragmatic policy of diplomacy and trade.

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