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Date: Sat, 13 Dec 1997 08:02:44 LCL
Sender: Former Soviet Republic - Central Asia Political Discussion List <CENASIA@VM1.MCGILL.CA>
From: David P. Straub <David.P.Straub-1@TC.UMN.EDU>
Subject: Differences at Islamic Conference
To: Multiple recipients of list CENASIA <CENASIA@VM1.MCGILL.CA>


Differences at Islamic Conference

By Anthony Shadid, AP, Thursday 11 December 1997; 4:40 a.m. EST

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Seated in a gleaming hall built by Iran for the Islamic summit, Central Asian delegates were unable to listen to three days of speeches about unity in their own language.

Instead, the debate and discussion were translated into Russian, which still seems to bind the former Soviet republics.

At the summit of the 55-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, which ends today, the Central Asian countries have constituted a new frontier.

Two of the five are making their first appearance, and all of them are being courted by an Iran offering closer ties through a mix of Islam and economic promise.

But the diversity of language, ethnicity and culture that makes the Islamic world so rich makes it just as difficult to find common cause. Faith for Central Asia, it seems, can go only so far.

We're interested in investment, said Vyacheslav Gizzatov, the Kazak ambassador to Iran. Kazakstan is a good space for the competition of investments, and we'd like more of that competition.

Iranian newspapers have sounded the theme of better ties with the country's Central Asian neighbors throughout the conference.

As the summit opened to calls of cooperation, an editorial in the Iran daily spoke of the republics' proximity to the Islamic Republic of Iran, their Islamic inclinations (and) the ancient influence of the Iranian culture on that region.

For years, Iranian policymakers have tried to tie Iran to the Central Asian countries -- Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan -- through road and railway links that allow those countries to export through Iran's Persian Gulf ports.

Iran wants, as well, to have a part in marketing the potentially lucrative oil and gas coming from undeveloped Central Asian fields -- an attempt the United States has strenuously opposed. Only grudgingly did Washington accept a project to build a $2.5 billion pipeline from Turkmenistan across northern Iran to Turkey.

Iranian officials have said they see the summit as a way to strengthen ties with Central Asia through personal diplomacy.

I believe the potential is great at improving those relations at the summit, said Mohammad Javad Zarif, an Iranian deputy foreign minister and spokesman of the Islamic summit.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, in his opening speech, thanked the Central Asians for their active and self-assertive presence.

But beyond shared economic interests, differences.

Most of the Central Asian states speak Turkic languages and belong to the orthodox Sunni sect of Islam. Iran is predominantly Shiite, a minority sect that dates back to a dispute over the succession to the Prophet Mohammed, who died in the seventh century.

Only Tajikistan shares Iran's language, but it, too, is Sunni Muslim.

Nearly all the leaders remain suspicious of Iran's revolutionary Islamic ideology, despite the growing signs of moderation displayed by Khatami since his landslide election victory in May. And Iran's nearly two decades of confrontation with the West is anathema to countries hoping to court its investment.

Those reservations have opened the way for Turkey to exert influence through its linguistic and ethnic ties with the region, a vast expanse of mountain and desert whose cities like Samarkand still resonate among Muslims nostalgic for Islam's golden age.

At the summit, where Turkey was sharply criticized for its military agreements with Israel, Turkish officials were reluctant to speak about any competition to avoid angering host Iran.

But Turkey's prime minister, Mesut Yilmaz, has said reviving relations with the Central Asian republics is a top priority, and he traveled to Kazakstan in September.

Turkey's traditional secularism appeals to the United States and Russia, which have both indicated they would much prefer Turkish influence in the region over Iranian.

In a sign of the importance Washington puts on the future of Central Asia, the United States sent 1,400 troops for weeklong military exercises with countries in the region in September.