New Muslim States Open to Influence from Iran


January 12, 1992|By WILLIAM O. BEEMAN

A new Middle East is rapidly emerging with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Suddenly there are many more nations in the region. Alliances are fluctuating and the United States has a new but familiar rival for influence -- Iran.

Almost in an instant, the old Muslim Middle East from Morocco to Pakistan gained eight new nations in the former Soviet Central Asia; expanded in size by 25 percent -- an area roughly equivalent to half of mainland United States; and added 48 million overwhelmingly Muslim people.

Most of these people are descendants of Turkic tribes, tracing their roots to the Mongol conquests of the 13th century. In subsequent centuries their lands became part of two great empires, the Persian and the Ottoman. Then, from the 17th century until the beginning of the 20th century, they were annexed by a third great empire -- Russia.

Now the modern successors of the two ancient empires, Iran and Turkey, both have designs on the region. Neither wants to conquer it, but both would like to exert a dominating influence. Turkey hopes to play on the common Turkic language and culture it shares with people such as the Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Turkmen. Thus far, however, Turkey has done little more than make polite gestures to the new nations.

Iran, on the other hand, has been aggressive, and is clearly the power to watch. Tehran's leaders hope to forge an alliance with the people of the region on the basis of their common religion.

They have sent envoys to every one of the new capitals with proposals for a vast array of joint development activities. A rail link already connects Iran and Azerbaijan on the West. A bridge and a short rail would connect Ashkabad, capital of Turkmenistan, to Iran's nationwide rail system. Iran also has extensive experience in marketing in the developed world -- something which the new republics totally lack.

There can be no doubt about Iran's long-term ambitions. The original charter of the revolution of 1978-79 was to establish Islamic governments throughout the Middle East as a counter both to Western democracy and to Communism.

Its ideological mission is moving quickly forward as Iran has developed increasingly sophisticated diplomatic skills. Examples of Iranian efforts in this direction can be seen in their newly forged alliance with the Sudan, and recent efforts in Algeria to develop close ties with the Islamic Salvation Front, which has just won overwhelmingly at the polls.

The stakes are considerable in this struggle for influence. Most important is control of the heart of Asia -- the ancient Silk Route. If this region were opened fully to international trade and transportation it could again become the hub of a vast trading network between eastern and western Eurasia. Industrial development in places such as Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, is already considerable. The next century could see this region become one of the wealthiest on earth.

So far, the United States has recognized all of the new states, and will establish diplomatic relations with Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. But years of neglect have left the United States starved for knowledgeable regional specialists. Only one institution -- Indiana University -- currently offers courses on the region as part of a regular curriculum of study.

With no deep understanding of the region, the United States may revert to a common pattern of the past when conflict arises. Rather than taking positive steps to win the regard and trust of the people in the region, it will likely base its attempts for influence on a demonization of Iran.

The new nations identify deeply with their Islamic background. If the United States is seen as rejecting Islam as a political and cultural force, it will find establishing influence in the region extremely difficult. Iran is well aware of this, and will present any attempts to discredit its efforts as an attack on religion.

Diplomacy in such a situation is tricky and delicate. With poor preparation and no real expertise in the area, the United States is in no position to make friends and influence people. Nevertheless, speed in diplomacy is of the essence. In a year, it may be too late because the patterns of policy dealings will be set as soon as that.

William O. Beeman is an anthropologist at Brown University specializing on Iran. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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