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Home / Politics / Both West and the East

Both West and the East

Guli Yuldasheva, expert on international relations and in particular geopolitics in Central Asia, author of the book Geopolitical Processes in Modern Central Asia: Iran and the United States, has named favorable factors for enhancement of Iran’s engagement in the Uzbek economy.

- Lately, analysts have been actively discussing the forthcoming Uzbekistan-Iran talks at the highest level, with precautions about the current situation in the Middle East over a possible rapprochement between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Uzbekistan. What do you think about that?

- First of all, I would like to stress that the common history, religion, language and culture have always influenced and will continue to positively effect the development of Uzbek-Iranian relations. Regardless of the course pursued by the government, bilateral relations in fact are already evolving at the non-political level (shuttle trade, small business, and so on).

The very fact of the close attention being paid by the experts to the Uzbek-Iranian relations is also a de facto recognition of the objective closeness of Iran and Uzbekistan.

Proceeding from this, I think the negotiations will undoubtedly take place: there is a serious interest in talks from both sides. However, it is difficult to identify the time frames. It is obvious that the ambiguous situation influences the process of decision-making in this issue, both in the Middle East and around it, where Iran plays a huge role and the inter-state disagreements among leading actors with their special Iranian position (USA, Saudi Arabia, Russia, etc.).

It would be naive to say that Uzbekistan, where more than 88% of the population is Muslim, will refuse to have investment and technology cooperation with the Middle East region. The historical and cultural appeal played an important role in the flow of migration from the land of Uzbekistan to the neighboring Muslim countries, including in the Middle East. Every year, hundreds of people from Central Asian nations join the ranks of radical organizations, including the Islamic State (IS). Obviously, part of the population has nostalgia for the “lost” Islamic past. The mood of another large part of the population is expressed in the spread of Islamic way of clothing, traditions and customs. The government of Uzbekistan reacts to these challenges with the well-known policy, namely, by the revival of Islamic heritage and local centuries-old traditions, the construction of mosques, Islamic higher education institutions, the organization of hajj, and so forth).

Even the community of problems, if you think about it, follows from the common history, culture and mentality of the Iranian and Uzbek peoples. A similar demographic situation with high birth rates, the prevalence of youth in the population composition, a semi-colonial past, dependence on developed countries, and, in many respects, the current socio-economic problems stemming from all this. In addition, such historical experience as the Soviet system in Uzbekistan and Anglo-American domination in Iran caused a similar division of societies into conservative and modernized parts. The difference is only in the degree of modernization and traditionalist approach. On the other hand, state nationalism in both countries is by no means alien to Islamic ideology: leaders themselves come from this traditional but modernizing environment.

Hence the practical adherence of both Iran and Uzbekistan to the foreign policy slogan “Both West and the East”, reliance on regional partnership with active cooperation with global partners and organizations. Together, these factors will stimulate bilateral partnership. The only question is how both states will be able to overcome the unsuccessfully developing barriers to bilateral partnership.

- Will not differences in political regimes – the secular government in Uzbekistan and the theocratic regime in Iran, hamper cooperation?

- I do not think so. First, the entire Islamic world today, in spite of local cataclysms and chaos, is generally developing in the direction of secularism, rather pragmatic and rational in relations with secular states. Suffice it to recall the friendly relations of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan with the secular countries of Central Asia. Iran is no exception; it is worth mentioning also the economic mutually advantageous relations of Western nations with Islamic states, including those between the EU countries and Iran.

Second, both societies are experiencing similar modernization processes and, as noted above, the attendant split of societies into westernized and conservative segments. Finally, and crucially, Iran, as time has showed, not only was not involved in the activities of any radical organizations, but is itself an active fighter against the Islamic State.

In general, the Uzbek-Iranian relations are gradually beginning to emerge from the previous stagnant state, which is purely pragmatically associated, first, with Uzbekistan’s policy of ensuring regional good-neighborliness and the formation of a zone of stability and security around the Central Asian region; second, the neutrality of Tashkent in the Iran-US confrontation; thirdly, the consolidation of ties between Iran and the leading regional players in Central Asia – Russia, China, Turkey and India.

- According to experts, from a military-defense point of view Iran is quite a strong state and a reliable partner. Given the common nature of global threats and challenges, the main topic of possible negotiations between Iran and Uzbekistan, according to Russian analysts, could be the fight against terrorism. What do you think about this and, perhaps, the cooperation of Uzbekistan and Iran in the military-political sphere?

- I agree with the fact that there are common threats and challenges in the Central and South Asian region (CSA), so is their relationship with those in the Middle East. However, as you know, military action cannot address the problems of the region, take, for example, Syria and Afghanistan. Especially in the context of interstate conflicts and disagreements. Stability can be achieved by economic means.

One of the main areas of possible negotiations with Iran may be the discussion of the construction and launching of transport routes, in particular, the corridors Mazar-e Sharif – Heart, Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran-Oman, China-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran, Baku-Kars with the involvement of Iran and Uzbekistan, and the logistics hub Chabahar with the potential to implement the North-South project. Mutually beneficial trade along the trajectory of future routes can smooth out the majority of regional disagreements, including those between the internal political forces of the parties involved. By the way, the United States, being Iran’s main opponent, does not object in fact to the realization of corridors Mazar-e Sharif – Herat and through the port of Chabahar, preferring also neutrality over other routes. There is an understanding that without the participation of Iran it is impossible to stabilize a huge region of Central and South Asia, including Afghanistan.

At the same time, global threats and challenges (international terrorism, drug trafficking, etc.) are not removed from the agenda. In this regard, along with transport issues, one can also expect discussion of the issues of military-political partnership in certain areas, in particular, the protection of the economic facilities under construction and already functioning. The experience of Iran here can prove invaluable.

- Earlier, the intention of the two countries was announced as to increase the trade turnover from $ 250 million to $ 1 billion. Do you think that is possible in the coming years and what role can the Uzbek-Iranian Trade House opened in Tehran this April play?

- It is unlikely that in the coming years we could achieve such a level of turnover. Tehran itself is in need of investments in its economy. More recently, for example, Tehran needed $ 500 billion in investments in the oil sector alone and $ 1.5 billion to expand the network of railways. The situation has hardly changed dramatically given the current tightening of US sanctions regime.

According to the Trade Development Organization of Iran, the volume of bilateral turnover between Iran and Uzbekistan in 2017 was as little as $ 227 million. It is no accident that Tashkent poses a more realistic task, namely, to increase trade with Iran to reach $ 500 million.

This said, the activities of the Uzbek-Iranian Trade House can prove limited. We need large-scale systemic measures to shift the current situation from a dead end. First of all, it is essential to achieve progress in three main areas of cooperation: in the transport sector, in ensuring appropriate customs and transit regime, and in the banking sector. Only by achieving success on these issues can we talk about deepening the process of involving Iran in the economy of Uzbekistan.
Favorable factors on this front may be the following:

• The success of talks between the diplomatic agencies of the EU and Iran over Yemen, which could prove the start of a dialogue and de-escalation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan’s willingness to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia strengthens the trend;

• Realization of the government’s plans to create the infrastructure of Islamic banking and finance in the country. In addition, private companies and sovereign funds of the Persian Gulf countries, according to rough estimates, own a global investment portfolio of $ 4.5 trillion, which makes them the largest investors in the world.

• The willingness of the EU, Russia, China, Turkey and India to increase economic cooperation with Iran in spite of US sanctions.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Trade of Uzbekistan is preparing a roadmap for cooperation with Iran in the field of textile, construction, oil industries, hygiene and healthcare sectors, and processing of agricultural products.
Thus, enhancement of economic partnership between Iran and Uzbekistan is an achievable and realistic task. However, the pace and scope of interaction will depend on the many variables emergent in the course of this process.

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