Türkiye’s growing footprint in Central Asia would outplay Iran
    Choosing new regional hegemon

    ANALYTICS  21 September 2023 - 15:46

    Fuad Shahbazov

    Central Asia—consisting of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—occupies a crucial place in the global landscape: its location at the crossroads of Russia, Iran, and China; its energy resources and its vast economic potential make it a critical region for major global powers.

    Although the West did not make inroads into the landlocked region because of Russia and China, traditional regional powers, in the last three years, different powers have attempted to engage with the energy-rich region, including Türkiye, Iran, and the US.

    Russia, China, and Iran possess distinct advantages that give them an edge over the United States in the region: their proximity and long history of interaction. However, Russia's engagement in the long and costly war in Ukraine created a power gap in the region, enabling countries like Iran and Türkiye to promote their agenda.

    Because of the war in Ukraine, most Central Asian countries are now seeking to distance themselves from Russia and broaden their horizons by forging new partnerships. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan especially are seeking more cooperation with the West and Türkiye.

    Indeed, Ankara looks set to continue a regional policy that has expanded trade and economic cooperation, improved connectivity and reached markets in Central Asia and beyond. Consequently, Central Asia will benefit from this engagement because Türkiye is one of the directions in the region’s declared multi-vector foreign policy.

    Türkiye, as a country, fits into too many categories: it is a European economy, it is a major power in the Middle East, it is a Mediterranean maritime hub, and it is also an Islamic nation. The country has long capitalized on the many facets of its complex identity to do business with as many partners as possible.

    Ankara’s geopolitical identity, however, has yet another critical component: being Turkic, Ankara has been increasingly relying on this to expand its economic ties with fellow Turkic nations, most of which are located in Central Asia. The steadily rising Turkish expansion is a source of concern for other regional actors like Iran and Russia.

    Iran has traditionally faced an uphill battle in its struggle with Türkiye for influence in Central Asia. But for the past three decades, Tehran has successfully been developing ties with Central Asian countries, namely Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

    Iran traditionally provided economic and political support to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in light of its long-term isolationist regional policy. Now, Ashgabat is taking steps to end its isolation, and the other Central Asian states are pursuing enhanced cooperation on more issues than ever before.

    However, Iran is recently been concerned with Türkiye’s intensified outreach to Tajikistan and other regional states within the framework of economic and regional interconnectivity projects. Moreover, Ankara’s activity in the region paves the way for Azerbaijan’s expansion, thus strengthening the Baku-Ankara geopolitical axis.

    For example, as the war in Ukraine disrupted supply chains in the global energy markets, in 2022, Türkiye's import of coal from Kazakhstan also rose by 58 per cent. In total, the trade turnover with Ankara increased for all republics: by 53.7 per cent for Kyrgyzstan, by 23.3 per cent for Tajikistan and by 21.9 per cent for Turkmenistan.

    The closer engagement with the region boosts the influence of bilateral and multilateral cooperation formats while limiting Iran's role. Moreover, within the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) framework, Azerbaijan plays a crucial role in helping Türkiye expand its regional influence. Even pro-Russian analysts pointedly suggested that Azerbaijan’s presence was part of “a long-running attempt by Ankara to undermine the authority of Iran in Central Asia”.

    The regional states in Central Asia are confident with the growing role of the Baku-Ankara axis, as Iran seems less attractive in terms of economic partner amid its harsh financial crisis. Türkiye's energy needs and regional energy transit hub ambitions partly drive Ankara's greater engagement with Central Asia.

    Given the country's limited domestic energy reserves, Türkiye remains significantly dependent on external energy supplies despite significant gas finds in the Black Sea in 2020. Ankara is particularly keen to secure energy supplies and transportation corridors that neither Russia nor Iran, eager to develop its own trade with Central Asia, has a monopoly over.

    With such perspectives and the region's attractiveness, Ankara and Tehran will put enormous efforts to ensure their monopoly over the energy-rich region, though the latter still cannot develop a permanent tool of influence over the region.


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