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Iran woos Farsi-speaking nations Rate Topic: -----

#1 User is offline   Nader Shah Icon

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Posted 10 May 2008 - 07:37 AM

http://www.atimes.co...t/JE10Ak01.html
Iran woos Farsi-speaking nations
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

There are many interrelated reasons why the United States policy of isolating Iran has failed, one being the prominent regional role played by Tehran that simultaneously relies on a net of bilateral, trilateral and multilateral arrangements. These are on the rise, irrespective of the nuclear standoff, sanctions and threats of military action against Iran.

One initiative in particular that Iran is genuinely interested in, and hopeful about its prospects, deals with trilateral cooperation among the three Farsi-speaking nations of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Such a union, if formed in the (intermediate) future, will definitely enhance Iran's regional status and create new linkages between Iran and Central Asia and beyond.

Forged by the common bonds of culture and language, this trilateral cooperation was recently given a "big jump", to quote Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who attended a meeting with his counterparts, Khan Zarih and Rangin Dadfar Sepanta, in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, in March. The three men issued a lengthy joint communique, consisting of a prelude and 12 clauses that emphasized the need to expand economic, trade, transportation, energy and cultural exchanges among the three countries, as well as enhancing cooperation against the common threats, such as terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, organized crime and any "new threats".

As member states of the regional organization, the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan have framed their trilateral cooperation largely within the framework of the ECO, as a sub-category of their broader, multilateral cooperation on a regional scale. (The other members of the ECO are Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.)

The somewhat dormant ECO is likely to benefit from any noticeable improvement in trade and non-trade cooperation between and among its 10 members, most of whom simultaneously belong to a number of other regional organizations, for example the Black Sea Organization, the Organization of Central Asian Cooperation, the Commonwealth of Independent States and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The idea is that multiple membership in diverse and at times parallel organizations has a complementary effect and represents little or no friction with respect to these states' simultaneous membership in such global, and globalizing, organizations as the World Trade Organization.

Yet, this may be simplistic and the complex relationship between various regional and global organizations defies a simple explanation as there are both positive and negative side effects that need to be taken into consideration by the participating states. This is particularly so when the terms of bilateral or trilateral agreements, for example on tariff reduction or preferential treatment, create a special category of relationships that do not sink well with broader multilateral arrangements.

A clue to the complexity of this subject matter, the problem often is (potentially) accentuated by the competing side effects of trilateral agreements. A case in point, over the past decade or so, Iran has explored various trilateral groupings, such as with India and Afghanistan, which run parallel to each other and, yet, do not necessarily complement each other. An example is the proposed cooperation on energy between Iran, Pakistan and India over a gas pipeline from Iran, where Pakistan is wary of India's role and influence in Afghanistan.

Similarly, the ECO-based initiative to enhance cooperation among the Farsi-speaking nations has a definite geocultural dimension or ramification, at least as far as Turkey and other Turkish-speaking ECO members are concerned. Iran has always been suspicious of Turkey's, or for that matter Kazakhstan's, attempts to forge closer ties to the Turkish-speaking Azerbaijan and the Turkish-speaking Central Asian states; such attempts, particularly by Turkey during the early and mid-1990s, were perceived as being directly anti-Iranian in nature.

Since then, mutual fears and concerns of pan-Turkism and pan-Persianism have been much dissipated by the growing maturity of Iran-Turkey and Iran-Azerbaijan relations in particular, based on mutual and shared interests, and the initial sound and fury of a "new great game" in Central Asia and the Caucasus has been replaced by the cold, realistic logic of cooperation and interdependence.

Nevertheless, as far as Iran is concerned, in addition to economic and trade issues, it is also confronted by a set of unique security and strategic considerations that are connected with the other issues. Thus, for example, Iran's cooperation with Afghanistan, perceived as a crucial gateway to both the South Asian sub-continent, China and Central Asia, impacts Iran's interaction with both the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as well as the issue of Iran's quest for membership in the SCO (which includes Tajikistan) as well as China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

As a result, the recent breakthrough in the long sought after trilateral cooperation with Afghanistan and Tajikistan, if carried through with meaningful implementation, actually readies Iran for SCO membership, where it has observer status, as it signals a greater degree and level of Iran's integration in a region deemed important by the SCO. It was therefore hardly a coincidence that Mottaki made his announcement about Iran's intention to join the SCO in Dushanbe while participating in the above-said trilateral meeting.

Here, an important priority of Tehran is to create the necessary infrastructure for greater economic interaction with neighboring Afghanistan and "near neighbor" Tajikistan, in light of the relatively low level of trade with both countries - in 2006, Iran's net exports to Afghanistan were barely more than US$500 million, compared to $7 million in imports.

Similarly, Iran's exports to Tajikistan for the same year stood at $128.4 million compared to $6.6 million imports from Tajikistan. This is not to mention Iran's economic assistance to both countries, for example, free shipment of oil to Tajikistan.

As part of its effort to enhance inter-regional trade, Iran has been an enthusiastic supporter of the ECO's vision for an ECO free-trade area by 2015, as well as ECO's trade agreement, that seeks to lower trade duties to 15% on 80% of goods traded within eight years.

The ECO has also been involved in a number of projects in Afghanistan, such as the Kabul zoo, building parks and health centers, and the upcoming ECO summit will likely result in more such projects for war-ravaged Afghanistan.

At last November's meeting of the ECO's council of ministers in Herat, Afghanistan, specific attention was given to building new transportation linkages and to implementing the rail and road parts of the ECO's Transit Transport Framework Agreement. This is an issue of interest to India as well, a participant in the project known as the North-South Corridor that aims to connect Iran's Persian Gulf port city of Chahbahar to points in India via Afghanistan.

For now, however, significant security, financial, political and other hurdles have slowed considerably the implementation phase of most ECO projects and it remains to be seen if the new boost in trilateral cooperation mentioned above will also boost cooperation among the ECO states as a whole - the fate of this trilateral cooperation depends to a large extent on substantive improvements in bilateral relations.

Concerning the latter, last October, Afghanistan and Tajikistan began reviving their cross-border trade and this has been welcomed by Tehran that lacks a common border with Tajikistan and attaches a great deal of importance to the Afghan corridor to Tajikistan. During the past 20 years, Tehran, by signing some 150 cooperation agreements with Dushanbe, has devoted a great deal of energy to expanding commercial relations with Tajikistan, as a result of which today Iranians own dozens of factories, companies and engineering firms in Tajikistan.

Having played a key role in mediating the internal tensions in Tajikistan during the 1990s and beyond, Iran since the mid-1990s has steadily increased its level of cooperation with Tajikistan. A case in point, in late 1996, Iran's first deputy president, Hassan Habibi, visited Dushanbe and signed 11 agreements on industrial, agricultural, transport, education and cultural exchanges.

In his July 2006 trip to Dushanbe, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his counterpart, President Emomali Rahmon, signed a number of similar agreements. Ahmadinejad described his trip as "very positive" and cited Iran's key contribution with the two projects of building the Anzab tunnel in northern Tajikistan and the Tudeh stone power plant.

However, Iran's expanding relations with Tajikistan and Afghanistan are not particularly welcomed by the US, which reportedly kept Afghan President Hamid Karzai from attending a Tehran summit of the three Farsi-speaking nations in 2006 (although Karzai at the time cited bad weather).

Compared with the Tajik president, Karzai has so far shown a lesser degree of enthusiasm for a union of Farsi-speaking nations, putting the priority on specific joint actions such as narcotics. Rahmon, on the other hand, is closely aligned with Russia's foreign policy priorities, which include a basic misgiving about the US's military presence in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Washington pursues its own agenda of fostering ties with Central Asian states through a cooperation agreement and US officials are set on regarding their competition with Iran in the region in zero-sum terms. And that, in a nutshell, means doing whatever possible to block or retard the development of any cultural, linguistic or political convergence between Iran and its Central Asian neighbors.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)
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