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Summary: In Central Asia, the risk of a military strike and the consequences of an Iranian reprisal on regional stability in an already sensitive region have stirred growing anxiety. Central Asian governments are unanimous on the Iranian issue: all call for a diplomatic settlement of the conflict. The Central Asian states would obviously prefer a denuclearized Iran, but they believe that Tehran is not yet capable of making operational nuclear weapons. Further, they believe that if Iran got this capability, it would not use it against them. They also think Iran could be convinced to abandon its weapons program if a trust relationship with the United States were restored and if the country were entitled to a geostrategic rebalancing in its favor opposite Israel and Pakistan. To Central Asia, the risk of pre-emptive military strikes seems much more dangerous and real than the Iranian program itself.
The Iranian Nuclear Crisis as Seen from Central Asia
by Sébastien Peyrouse
Advances in Iran’s nuclear program have rekindled the debate on the possibility of military action by the United States or by Israel alone to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Further discussions concern the risks of Iranian retaliation that might follow and its various counterproductive effects. The idea gaining ground, that an attack on Iran would make it possible to speed up the fall of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, or conversely that an attack on Syria might drastically weaken Iran in the Middle East, forgets to measure the impact such a strike would have on countries situated east of Iran. Media focus on the Arab revolutions of 2011 and what has become a quasi-civil war in Syria (an Iranian outpost in the region) tends to ignore the eastward-facing identity of Iran, which has always been important to the stability of West Asia. Iran is not only a regional power in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, but also in the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and Afghanistan. In Central Asia, the risk of a military strike and the consequences of an Iranian reprisal on regional stability in an already sensitive region have stirred growing anxiety. Central Asian governments are unanimous on the Iranian issue: all call for a diplomatic settlement of the conflict. Uzbekistan continues to be the Central Asian country most reluctant to develop good neighborly relations with Iran. The Uzbek regime is suspicious of any rival regional power, is founded on the fear of imported Islamic insurgency from Afghanistan or Iran, and promotes itself as the foremost ally of the United States in the region. The resumption of international tension over the Iranian nuclear program has required a paradoxical silence from Tashkent. The government hesitates between supporting the United States against the majority opinion in the region, as it had done in 2003 action in Iraq, and recognizing the threats to its own stability that a strike against Iran would entail. Turkmenistan shares a border with Iran and its economic development is partly tied to its neighbor. Tajikistan is a fellow Persian-speaking country and also depends on investment from Iran. Both countries defend Iran’s position. Ashgabat insists that the nuclear program is exclusively for civilian purposes and Dushanbe argues that economic sanctions are not a solution. This view is widely held among all Tajik political parties, including those in the opposition. In Kyrgyzstan, the focus is naturally directed to the Manas transit center, and Kyrgyz public opinion is largely
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opposed to the U.S. military presence. There is concern about the possible use of the base as point of departure for an attack on Iran, a worry shared by the Kyrgyz authorities, neighboring countries, and Russia. The Kyrgyz authorities are also concerned about the risk of retaliation from Iran in the case of strikes coming from Manas. Like his predecessors, the new Kyrgyz president, Almazbek Atambayev, stated that his country would not allow the base to be used for attacks on Iran. Officially, Bishkek is seeking the closure of Manas in 2014, although negotiations are continuing with Washington behind the scenes. Kazakhstan is also very critical of the position of the international community. In November 2011, President Nursultan Nazarbayev said that he considered existing penalties sufficient, that the IAEA conclusions are ambiguous, and therefore that priority should be given to the visits of inspectors to the nuclear sites in Iran. However, Astana is sensitive to the concerns of the international community. In its daily interaction with the United States at its embassy in Washington or at conferences attended by Kazakh diplomats, voices are raised against Iran, in recognition that this is also a major concern for Astana. But the country is still officially playing off the two main protagonists: it calls on Iran to follow its own model of military denuclearization and on the United States to enter into unconditional negotiations with Tehran. However, the Kazakh president has gone further to say out loud what many leaders in Central Asia are thinking, regarding the asymmetry the treatment of Pakistan and Israel versus that of Iran: “If we talk about the Iranian nuclear program, why did we not talk about that of Pakistan when it was created? Why do not we talk about Israel, which has de facto nuclear weapons? (....) One cannot function asymmetrically.” Like all Central Asian states, Kazakhstan has always held clearly pro-Israeli positions and refused to be drawn into the anti-Israeli logic of the Iranian regime, for example within the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Daring to draw a parallel between the Israeli and Iranian nuclear programs is not a neutral act for Astana, but a strong signal of recognition that the geostrategic weakness Tehran faces vis-à-vis Tel Aviv is problematic. The mention of Pakistan is also notable. As viewed from Central Asia, Teheran is a more legitimate partner than Islamabad. Despite its regime, Tehran is considered to be a more stable ally and closer to the long-term interests of the region. On
The Kazakh president has gone further to say out loud what many leaders in Central Asia are thinking, regarding the asymmetry the treatment of Pakistan and Israel versus that of Iran.
both issues, Israel and Pakistan, Central Asian perceptions are therefore far from the U.S. majority vision. Behind the official speeches calling for an exclusively diplomatic solution, security concerns are emerging. The Central Asian regimes worry about Iran’s capacity to cause harm if it chooses to make reprisals: the rupture of economic cooperation, which would have a serious effect on Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, and on Caspian oil swap agreements with Kazakhstan; a growing geopolitical instability in the Caspian basin; and, above all, the underground activities of the Revolutionary Guards (financing oppositional Islamic movements and mobilizing Shiite minorities) and the risk of a burgeoning illegal market for uranium products. These five Central Asian countries are members of the Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, but nuclear waste inherited from the Soviet nuclear program is widespread and poorly monitored. Officially Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan no longer produce uranium. However, the closed mines have not been secured and nuclear waste is easily accessible, for instance in KyzylKiia (Kyrgyzstan) and at the former Vostokredmet mining complex, near Khudjand (Tajikistan). In the uraniumproducing countries of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, endemic corruption of the administrative apparatus, especially for industrial wealth, suggests that the trafficking of uranium or radioactive products is theoretically possible. There are numerous rumors in Central Asia concerning Iranian desire for former Soviet nuclear waste, fueled by the Wikileaks revelations that Iran’s search for uranium went all the way to Latin America.
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For Kazakhstan, the challenges of an Iran in search of uranium are even more contradictory. The country has been the world’s leading producer of uranium since 2009 and has built an ambitious civil nuclear program. It wants to capture 30 percent of the world fuel fabrication market, export small- and medium-sized reactors abroad, especially to Asia and the Middle East, and be able to control the totality of the nuclear cycle until the last enrichment phase, which would be carried out in Russia. If Iran’s civil nuclear program receives international support, it potentially would be an important customer for Kazakhstan. Astana has thus not hidden its interest in helping the Iranian program through the sale of uranium fuel. In 2009, it even offered to host a fuel bank that Tehran could use for civil purposes. The Central Asian states would obviously prefer a denuclearized Iran, but they believe that Tehran is not yet capable of making operational nuclear weapons. Further, they believe that if Iran got this capability, it would not use it against them. Iran as a state and a nation is highly respected in Central Asia, and there is no feeling of distrust towards a long-term partnership with it. They also think Iran could be convinced to abandon its weapons program if a trust relationship with the United States were restored and if the country were entitled to a geostrategic rebalancing in its favor opposite Israel and Pakistan. To Central Asia, the risk of pre-emptive military strikes seems much more dangerous and real than the Iranian program itself, because Tehran might want countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, which are important players in the Northern Distribution Network and International Security Assistance Force support, to pay for their good relations with the United States. Iranian reprisals in economic and political terms, the fomenting of internal destabilizations by the Revolutionary Guards, and the escalation of tensions in the Caspian Sea, which would impede its transformation into an export route for Central Asian hydrocarbons to Europe and Turkey, could drastically reduce the prospects for stability in the region. The local governments would also have to make clear their strategic choices — something they seek to avoid — between their good relations with Washington and Tel Aviv, and preserving their neutrality toward their Iranian neighbor. A military solution to the Iranian crisis would undermine the CENTCOM naval corridor in the Caspian Sea basin, the Northern Distribution Network on the
former Soviet territory, and the future of the Manas transit center, and probably change the Russian position toward the U.S. involvement in Central Asia. It is therefore time to take into account the views of regional stakeholders, and to have them participate in the debate, particularly at a time when the United States and Europe are shaping a new relationship to Central Asia in preparation for the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
About the Author
Sébastien Peyrouse is a senior research fellow with the Central AsiaCaucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and an associate at the Central Asia Program at George Washington University.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.
About the On Wider Europe Series
This series is designed to focus in on key intellectual and policy debates regarding Western policy toward Wider Europe that otherwise might receive insufficient attention. The views presented in these papers are the personal views of the authors and not those of the institutions they represent or The German Marshall Fund of the United States.
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