By Paul Goble
Concerned that Turkey is stealing a move on it after Azerbaijan’s victory in the latest round of Qarabagh fighting, Iran has become significantly more active on the diplomatic, economic and even security fronts in the Caucasus and Central Asia over the last four months.
Several weeks ago, Iran and Tajikistan announced the formation of a joint military committee, something that gives Tehran new influence in Central Asia’s only non-Turkic country. That also gives Iran new possibilities for cooperating with China, and it challenges not only Turkey but Russia in the region (jamestown.org/program/iran-and-tajikistan-announce-formation-of-joint-military-committee/).
Now, Tehran is touting a breakthrough in railway transportation links with Turkmenistan, a country which it borders and which is located between Iran and Tajikistan. Mohsen Etemad, the director of Iran’s northeastern railway, says that this week, the first cargo from Iran has now passed into Turkmenistan (farsnews.ir/en/news/14000116000305/Official-Iran-Freigh-Wagns-Arrive-in-Trkmenisan).
Iranian officials say that this will allow for a dramatic expansion in trade between the two countries. During the first 11 months of 2020, Iran exported 144,000 tons to Turkmenistan; this year, Tehran projects that it will export 300,000 tons to that country (casp-geo.ru/turkmenistan-i-iran-narashhivayut-intensivnost-torgovo-ekonomicheskogo-sotrudnichestva/).
Turkmenistan is almost as enthusiastic about this breakthrough as Iran is. Its officials are taking prominent parts in virtual meetings between Iranian and Turkmen business leaders. So far the focus has been on immediate cross-border trade, but both countries are committed to expanding that both for the countries as a whole and for transit to other markets from each.
Bilateral trade between the two countries had been growing before the pandemic led to its contraction. Some of the moves in recent days are simply about the recovery of what was the case as of 2019. But Iran seems far more interested in expanding this form of influence now than it was earlier, and so the geopolitical consequences of this trade should not be ignored.