When it comes to Syria's war, Moscow-Tehran-Ankara dynamics have been in the headlines. But dynamics between the three in Central Asia, with its fighter flows to the Syrian conflict and other theatres of jihad, have been the subject of far less scrutiny.

In a region that historically served as a site of confrontation between various empires, Russia, Turkey, and Iran compete - along with other powers including China - to exert influence upon that immense territory. 

Five post-Soviet states stretch across Central Asia, an area of more than 1.5 million square miles. With populations of mostly Turkic origin, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are home to more than 65 million predominantly Sunni Muslims. The region fell under Russian control in the mid-nineteenth century. For Moscow, it has historically served as a strategic security belt against Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China. 

Since their independence, these five countries have been driven apart due to political, territorial, ethnic, and infrastructural issues – namely dams and hydropower plants. Russia, Turkey, and Iran have tried to use that lack of integration for their own ends. For Moscow this has enabled the preservation of erstwhile influence. For Ankara, which shares no borders with the region, this has meant using the sensitive issue of common ethnic roots to gain access to natural resources. And for Tehran, this has meant benefitting from a golden economic opportunity combined with the promotion of Iran's version of Shia Islam. The powers have been attracted by the region’s immense hydrocarbon and mineral wealth, as well as its strategic geography.

In the background to all this is an upsurge of religious and nationalist radicalisation among youth, along with government brutality, crippling economies, unemployment, and widespread pent-up dissent. Some of these countries are not without their own contradictions, at times teetering on the brink of military confrontation. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan fell out over the ongoing construction of the Rogum hydroelectric dam on the Tajik section of the River Vakhsh, for instance. The situation escalated to dangerous sabre-rattling that only subsided with the death of Uzbekistan's President Karimov in 2016.

Uzbek youth in the courtyard of a mosque and Islamic school where they live and study.

Islamist extremist groups leave a clear footprint. All five Central Asian states are exposed to a strong influence from the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS with neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan serving as safe havens for Islamist extremist groups, particularly the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Katibat Imam Al-Bukhari, Turkistan Islamic Party, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and others. Most of them enjoy the protection of the Taliban and Haqqani Network and participate in their operations.

Every Central Asian state is widely represented in the militant ranks in Syria’s war. Their total number is estimated to be in excess of 5,000 jihadis, up to 1,000 of them women. They are active in groups like ISIS and opposition factions such as Kataib al-Bukhari, primarily comprising Uzbeks.  

In April, the highest-ranking ISIS member from Tajikistan – a second-in-command to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - was killed in a coalition airstrike in Iraq’s Mosul. Formerly head of Tajikistan’s elite Paramilitary Special Police Units, Gulmurod Khalimov was once trained by the US as a sniper. The late ISIS defence minister had replaced another jihadi of former Soviet Union descent and US military training, Abu Omar al-Shishani, in that position. 

Moscow’s strength in the region

After more than one hundred years’ rule, Russia had a priori a significant start on the two powers in their contest for the region. While Turkey and Iran were sounding their religious, ethnic, and economic leverage, Russia was present on the scene in one way or another. Russian troops were instrumental in ending the civil war between the Wahhabi groups and the government in Tajikistan, paving the way for the former Soviet parliamentarian Emomali Rahmon to become president.

Moscow, with its two military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, is seen as a guarantor of internal stability and a deterrent of jihadis from abroad. Porous borders between Central Asia and Afghanistan serve as transit routes for drug traffickers and militants. This is where Russia concentrates a considerable part of its troops, cooperating with Iran to prevent the flow of narcotics and jihadis.

Russia’s regional supremacy also hinges on a sizeable Russian Slavic population scattered across the five states, particularly in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In the early 1990s ethnic Russians constituted some 9.5 million or about 20 per cent of the population in most Central Asian countries, though this has fallen dramatically since. However, ethnic Russians still make up a significantly large minority, while Russian is still used as a lingua franca across the region. This, according to Russian legislation, allows Moscow to intervene anywhere in cases where ethnic Russians’ rights have been infringed or lives threatened. An example of such intervention justified by Moscow on these grounds was amply demonstrated in Ukraine.

Russia is the largest employer of migrants from Central Asia, with estimates ranging from five million to ten million workers. Such labour flows from the region are concentrated at construction sites that have come to be known as recruiting centers for jihadis. There have been reports of growing Salafi-jihadi penetration into these migrant communities to recruit new members for ISIS or form dormant cells inside Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's tour of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan in March, as well as Uzbekistan new president's state visit to Moscow in April, demonstrate Russia's strategy to enhance influence in the region. Apart from economic and geopolitical considerations, the Kremlin seeks to achieve security in the most vulnerable states, namely Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which border Afghanistan.

Tehran ties: religion or economics?

As Russia was still recovering from the tectonic political changes of the early 1990s, Iran did not tarry to build ties in Central Asia. In the post-Soviet reality, Tehran had serious concerns over the potential dangers of foreign powers gaining influence close to its border. Tehran was also wary of the risks that, after a long, secular Soviet rule, Iran’s Sunni opponents might target the religiously unprepared Muslims of the region with an anti-Shia information campaign. Most importantly, Central Asia’s considerable energy resources, coupled with its landlocked position, gave Iran leverage as a unique route for energy transport corridors to the Persian Gulf.

A congenial factor for such rapprochement existed in Tajikistan, where Farsi is spoken due to a shared Persian history and heritage, though the two countries are Sunni and Shia, respectively. Actually, Tehran has never been linguistically or ethnically handicapped in any country in the region. Farsi-speaking Iranian clerical and business representatives that travelled to the region included members of Iran’s Azeri Turk minority, who have a native command of Turkish. This gained them access to the region’s large Turkic-origin population.

From the late 1990s, Iran stepped up a large-scale charm offensive across the region, resulting in religious, educational, and economic projects with a clear Shia slant. Tehran did not shy away from proselytising its Islamist version of Shia Islam in Farsi-speaking Tajikistan with the permission of local authorities. Iran opened access for Tajik students to be trained in Iranian religious centers from the late 90s. This resulted in many graduates’ converting to Shia Islam. Back home, some of them set up Shia study groups.

Vladimir Putin meets with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. 

When in 2010 the Tajik authorities grew concerned over the potential risks of Iranian influence, the government took steps to curtail it by ordering some 200 students to return home from Iran. There were even cases of Tajik students being taken off Tehran-bound planes from Dushanbe airport. This, however, never stopped Iran from promoting its internal influence politically. Tehran got so deeply involved in regional religious dynamics that it acted as one of the mediators in the settlement of the civil war in Tajikistan between the Wahhabi opposition and the government in the mid-1990s, getting involved as Russia had. There was no evidence of any Saudi involvement. Although the anti-government forces (The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan) were not Wahhabis in the strict sense of the notion, the Central Asian and Russian authorities dubbed them so because they advocated the return to the puritan Islamic values of the time of the Prophet.

At first, Russia grew cautious of Iran’s close involvement, especially seeing Tehran’s assertiveness as a mediator in the Tajik crisis, but did not acknowledge its discontent openly. There were even unconfirmed reports that Iran funded The Party of Islamic Revival of Tajikistan, which provoked the civil war in 1992, a fact Iran has always denied. A new Moscow-Tehran rapprochement began in the late 1990s to early 2000s. Moscow then announced new arms sales to Tehran, as well as a renewed Russian commitment to completing the Bushehr reactor. In March 2001, Mohammad Khatami became the first Iranian president to visit Russia since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The relationship grew warmer since then. As their positions increasingly aligned on a number of issues, Russia realised it could reap better political benefits from a controlled Iranian presence.

This was also clear for Moscow in light of a potentially more dangerous Sunni Turkish influence. In the early post-Soviet period, Turkey stood all chances of eclipsing its other competitors in Central Asia, so strong was the local population’s ethnic aspirations towards the Turkish Republic. Apart from the ideal ethnic and religious affinity with the region, Moscow also viewed Ankara as a NATO extension, vying for a closer military engagement with Central Asia in one form or another. On top of this, Turkey’s assistance to North Caucasus rebels during the Chechen wars remained a sore point.

Iran’s total indifference to the anti-Russian insurgencies in the Caucasus, meanwhile, contributed to a stronger nexus between Moscow and Tehran. The Kremlin even encouraged Tehran to continue its ties with Tajikistan. Despite Uzbekistan’s vociferous objections, Iran helped the country build the Sangtuda-2 power plant in 2014. This soured relations between Dushanbe and Tashkent, which long considered any such project to be detrimental to Uzbekistan’s water supply.

Simultaneously, Iran established close cooperation with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan – an easily achieved task given the three countries’ access to the landlocked Caspian Sea and their interdependence in terms of its disputed delimitation. They built strong educational and cultural ties buttressed by Iran’s tireless attempts at bringing Shia Islam closer to its new partners. But most of all, Iran aimed at winning the jewel in the crown – land pipelines from the energy-rich region to the Persian Gulf. However, these projects were doomed from the early stages due to US sanctions against Iran. That predicament only reinforced Tehran’s efforts to continue its multifaceted cooperation with the region.

Tehran’s political tenacity paid off and Iran succeeded in building a railway connection through Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, with Chinese participation, in late 2014. Turkmenistan-Iran pipelines also came to fruition, bypassing US sanctions in 1997 and 2010.

Iran experienced difficulties with Uzbekistan from the outset. Tehran had all the prerequisites for success except for the doctrinal one. Farsi-speaking Tajiks in Uzbekistan are estimated to number between four and six million. As to the majority Turkic-speaking Uzbeks, Tehran applied the hackneyed practice of using ethnic Azeri-Turks of Iranian descent to build influence by establishing contacts with Shia co-religionists, exploring business opportunities, as well as engaging at the government level.

All Iranian efforts notwithstanding, the breakthrough never happened. The late President Karimov, one of the regional heavyweights and an astute mediator in the Tajik civil war, grew suspicious of Iran’s covert support for the radicals and cut ties with Tehran for years. As a follow-up of rupture with Tehran, the Uzbek authorities conduct regular repressions against ethnic Azeris and local Farsi-speaking Ironis (“Iranians”) of the Bukhara-Samarkand region who are Fiver and Twelver Shias.

Notably, the religious background in post-Soviet Central Asia proved not to be flexible enough to yield in any tangible way to Shia Islamist ideology, although it would stand to reason that a number of converts to Shia Islam appeared and networks were created. But in addition to promoting purely Shia Islamist values, Iran since 1979 has symbolised a success story of an Islamic revolution. The Central Asian republics have been averse to Iran’s constant attempts to promote “political Islam” on their territories. Eventually, Iran adjusted its far-reaching ambitions in the region to existing realities and settled for a more pedestrian business cooperation.

From the security point of view, Iran’s concerns were partly allayed since the only foreign military presence in the region was, and continues to be, Russian. But even that failed to make Iran complacent. Tehran carried on along its steady geopolitical path of securing a formal foothold via Moscow’s good offices. Gradually, the entente cordiale between Tehran and Moscow reached such an extent that Russia sought to assist Iran’s full accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The full membership, which is still blocked by China, would have allowed Iran to project its influence not only in Central Asia, but beyond.

A return to the Turkish sphere?

It was not in vain that Iran had been apprehensive about the hurdles it would stumble upon in its attempts at economic and ideological expansion in the region. Sunni Turkey, heavily supported by the West, did indeed try to counter Iran’s religious propaganda to the benefit of its own model of Islam. The Turkish soft power of moderate, secular Islamic democracy as a form of government was quickly accepted, but from the outset it acquired distinct authoritarian overtones. Pan-Turkic ideas became widely spread across Central Asia’s ethnic Turks, and even found some official recognition.

Russia, for its part was very suspicious of the Turkish influence, viewing it as an attempt to replace its own long-time patronage over the region. Besides, Turkish Circassians of North Caucasus descent were known to Moscow as active purveyors of financial and material support to rebels during the two Chechen Wars. This was in stark contrast to Iran’s near-total indifference to the anti-Russian insurgencies in the North Caucasus.

Perhaps not unbeknownst to Russia, but decidedly much to Moscow’s relief, some local authoritarian leaders played the right tune. Ambitious presidents of the former Soviet nomenklatura, primarily Uzbekistan’s Karimov and Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev, preferred not to be diluted under Turkish banners and slowed down their Turkic zeal. They preferred to keep equally unaffected by newly recovered ethnic and religious brothers in Tehran and Ankara, while consolidating their own independent power base. Besides, authoritarian ways of rule inherent in Central Asia were in stark contradiction with secular and democratic Islam, promoted by Turkey as a model.

Despite unabated deference to common Turkic roots, most states in the region tacitly refused to recognise Turkey as a ‘Big Brother.’ One of the first manifestations of this attitude was Turkish disappointment at the lack of Central Asian diplomatic support in the Northern Cyprus question. To make it worse, following the 2005 Andijan massacre, Turkey supported a UN resolution condemning mass killings, which buried shaky Ankara-Tashkent relations for a decade.

From the very beginning there were other reasons that prevented Ankara’s aspirations in Central Asia. To Turkey’s chagrin, the country experienced deep economic crisis at home from the mid-1990s and lacked funds for the task. And without considerable investments any serious ethno-confessional impact was unrealistic. Gradually, pan-Turkic political popularity suffocated, remaining restricted to regular cultural programmes and active Central Asian support to the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States, created by the AKP in 2009. Turkish influences in Central Asia, however weak they may be, still continue but not at the level Ankara desired. With no direct access to the region Turkey is still unable to utilise its full potential in Central Asia.

Minor tensions

The Russia-Turkey-Iran nexus in Central Asia is characterised by relatively minor tensions as the three countries maintain their ethno-religious and geopolitical balance, with Russia as a leading actor. The region has never served as a source of confrontation among the three powers in the post-Soviet period, except at the level of quiet ideological discourse. Iran constantly advocated Shia Islamist revolutionary ideas, Turkey strongly supported a secular Sunni model of democracy, while Russia has insisted on secular power with strong leadership.

As is obvious, ethnic, sectarian and confessional affinities under the present Central Asian regimes are not a robust foundation upon which strong relations could be built. Iran and Turkey play a role in economic cooperation and cultural interaction, but despite their confessional and ethnic affinity, Tehran and Ankara are hard pressed to compete with Moscow’s direct leverage.

Changing dynamics and gradual departure of the former Soviet nomenklatura leaders could bring new forces that may lean towards a stronger pro-Turkish or pro-Iranian orientation. Shifts in favour of Turkey or Iran are also possible in case Ankara or Tehran are in a position to offer benefits similar to what Moscow can deliver for Central Asia: financial assistance, security, job opportunities, and military protection.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics.