Iran, Russia, and winds of change in Central Asia

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Our Central Asia Correspondent

Rabi' al-Thani 22, 1437 2016-02-01

News & Analysis

by Our Central Asia Correspondent (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 12, Rabi' al-Thani, 1437)

Economic collapse along with mass protests in Azerbaijan, Iran’s open political backing for the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), and Russian-NATO-Turkish proxy war are signals of status quo shake up in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Over the past two months three events have unfolded in Central Asia and the Caucasus which could drastically alter the political landscape of the region if Iran and Russia decide it is time to cooperate in order to meet the needs of imminent changes. What are those events and what are their strategic ramifications?

Since Islamic Iran invited Muhiddin Kabiri, leader of the recently-banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) to attend an international conference in Tehran in December 2015, the regime of the unelected president, Emomali Rahmonov in Tajikistan has gone into panic mode.

The Rahmonov regime banned the IRPT in August branding it an “extremist” organization. Therefore, Kabiri’s attendance at the conference, which was also attended by the regime-appointed “mufti” is a clear sign that Tehran has its own principles in Central Asia and it views the IRPT as an important regional player.

It must be borne in mind that Iran helped broker a peace deal that ended the Tajik civil war in the mid-1990s. The peace agreement has now been politically annulled by the Rahmonov regime since it eliminated the IRPT through illegal political and security measures.

The second crucial event happened as a result of the Russian-Turkish diplomatic-political hostilities over the war on Syria. In December 2015 during the Moscow summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which includes the Turkic states of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, Turkey’s “brotherly” regime in Kyrgyzstan openly sided with Russia and others chose to remain “neutral.”

The third event that is continuing to unfold in a very unpredictable manner is the collapse of the Azeri currency, which triggered spontaneous mass protests in various parts of Azerbaijan that are still continuing. At the moment, the protesters have specific economic demands, but the regime’s brutal response is politicizing the situation.

All of these events have the potential to drastically alter the existing status-quo in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The situation in Tajikistan has been going from bad to worse over the past five years and the report released in January 2016 by the International Crisis Group (ICG) predicts a potential slide back into civil war due to Rahmonov’s autocratic policies.

Azerbaijan is witnessing the rebirth of a popular protest movement coupled with harsh economic conditions and the escalating confrontation between the unelected Aliyev regime and the Islamic movement.

Turkey has been NATO’s main tool in Central Asia for decades due to its cultural links with the region. The US-Russia proxy war in Syria and Ukraine, along with Moscow’s confrontation with Ankara dooms Central Asia and the Caucasus to a strategic shake up.

Central Asia and the Caucasus regions are plagued with problems that are recipes for mass conflicts. Unemployment, oppression, corruption, external interference and territorial disputes are rampant throughout the region. None of these problems can be addressed by Moscow alone, which sees the area as its privileged sphere of influence. The current Russia-US proxy war makes it very difficult for Russia to control the region unilaterally as it had done over the past decade.

Once the status quo is shaken up, Moscow’s traditional allies composed of autocratic regimes will be facing a new reality due to drastically different internal and external dynamics as opposed to ten years ago.

While Washington can and most probably will destabilize the region in order to exert pressure on Russia in Syria and Ukraine, the US does not aim or possess enough clout to turn the area into its sphere of control.

The only way to address the current unsustainable situation is if Moscow and Tehran in consultation with Beijing outline a roadmap for redesigning the current socio-political order in the region which is destined to change anyway.

It seems that Moscow is slowly opening to this new way of seeing things and Tehran is beginning to send signals that it has its own legitimate principled interests in the region, which it will pursue vigorously.

The fact that IRPT’s leader was openly staying in Moscow during his self-imposed exile prior to his rumored move to Turkey shows that Russia is keeping its options open in Tajikistan. There is also a growing lobby within Russia vocalized by the regional expert Dr. Igor Ponkratenko to reorient Moscow’s backing toward the IRPT. Dr. Ponkratenko forecasts that within the next few months Russia will manifest its backing for the IRPT in some way. If this takes place, it will be a strategic turn around for the region that will rob Washington of its “human rights and democracy” pretext to destabilize the region in its favor.

In Central Asia, Tajikistan is the place to watch. It has the region’s oldest and most active Islamic movement. It is also a place where Tehran and Moscow have a lot in common and have a golden opportunity to reshape the region prior to Washington’s meddling and do so with relative ease.

Neither Russia nor Iran want to destabilize Azerbaijan, but Aliyev’s oppressive economic policies and unconstructive political moves are taking the country toward civil war. Most probably Moscow and Tehran see this and might choose to pressure or remove Aliyev in order to avoid an even worse situation in the future.

Regardless of how the situation develops, signals of change are getting stronger in Central Asia and the Caucasus. If Moscow does not cooperate with Tehran, Washington will certainly turn the process of change into its project as it did with the Islamic Awakening movement (Arab Spring) in the Arab world.

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