Iran pushes trade, not Koran, in Central Asia
By Chris Bird, Reuters, 2 December 1997, 02:54 p.m Eastern
ALMATY, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - Trade, not the Koran, dominates Iran's overtures to its Central Asian neighbors in a strategic poker game with the United States for control of the flow of oil from the region.
In the middle of this game, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, just back from a visit to Washington, will attend a summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Tehran, Dec. 9-11.
U.S. sanctions against Iran, which Washington accuses of sponsoring terrorist groups, prevent American oil companies, which are the largest investors in Caspian oil, from bankrolling the Iranian route south.
Vice President Al Gore said last month during Nazarbayev's Washington trip that the Kazakh leader had agreed to bypass Iran in his state's search for an alternative export route to Russia.
But few Western oil executives believe Nazarbayev has given up on the Iranian route, which he has pushed hard for in recent months.
"He said everything they (U.S. officials) wanted to hear," a senior Western oil representative in the Kazakh capital Almaty said recently. "But if I was Mr. Nazarbayev, I'd need a lot of persuasion to give up the shortest possible route out."
The Muslim regions above Iran's northern border were cut off by marauding Turkmen slavers roving the Kara Kum Desert before the 1917 Russian revolution.
The watchtowers and barbed wire of Soviet rule, thrown down all the way to China, further isolated the former Soviet republics.
Western scholars in the 1980s predicted that in the aftershocks of Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, the first crack in the concrete monolith would appear in Muslim Central Asia, which has the highest birth rate in the Soviet Union.
But there was no revolution, and Iranian clerics who went to the republics after independence in 1991, the trunks of their cars jammed filled of Korans, were in for further disappointment.
Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Turkmens had kept basic Islamic traditions alive in their homes, but few had given up a taste for vodka acquired under their Russian imperial masters.
Three out of five of the Central Asian leaders are former Communist Party chieftains who condemn the radical Islam of Taleban-ruled Afghanistan.
The death of Afghanistan's former Communist leader, Najibullah, hanged by the Taleban militia in Kabul last year, confirmed their worst fears.
U.S. diplomats camping in rundown Soviet hotels and faced with the task of trying to isolate Iran played on these fears with some success in the early days of independence, pushing the secular model of NATO ally Turkey.
But the lure of oil dollars, with which the landlocked republics hope to underwrite their independence from Moscow, has proved stronger than ideology.
Western oil companies say the Caspian basin could contain 100 billion to 200 billion barrels of oil, meaning that the Central Asian states could be set to rival the North Sea as a major producing region in the next decade.
But these landlocked states are now almost completely dependent on limited capacity in Russian-controlled pipelines to get their crude to market.
Iran cannot compete with U.S. aid and investment. But it offers the shortest export route for Caspian oil to the Gulf to fuel hungry Asian markets -- and could end the Central Asian dependence on Russia.
Iran has gone all out to push its role as a hub in heady dreams of reviving the ancient Silk Route for trade. The Tehran press is full of reports of meetings with the lowliest Central Asian officials, part of Iran's drive to combat U.S. sanctions.
Few passengers and little freight travel a new railroad linking Central Asia with Iran, but Iranian trucks pound the roads from Baku to Bishkek. This month a gas pipeline linking Turkmenistan and Iran will be opened.
The Europeans are already testing U.S. sanctions.
Deals by European oil major Royal Dutch/Shell would form a consortium to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Turkey via Iran, while France's Total SA signed a $2 billion deal for a gas project with Iran in September.
The United States government is said be turning a blind eye to an Iranian-Kazakh oil swap deal.
In the meantime, Nazarbayev and other Central Asian leaders hope Iran-U.S. relations will have thawed by the time the big oil starts flowing.
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